It's abundantly clear there's a housing crisis in Mountain View and the Bay Area at large. What isn't clear is what the Mountain View City Council plans to do about it.
From lengthy, emotional public comment periods to redevelopment projects that displace low-income renters, the housing crisis is a regular subject at council meetings. At a study session last month to set major work plan goals for the next two fiscal years, council members directed staff to study a number of potential projects to "promote a community for all with a focus on strategies to protect vulnerable populations" and "improve the quantity, diversity, and affordability of housing by providing opportunities for subsidized, middle-income, and ownership housing," according to a draft project list. And just last week council members unanimously approved an agreement with the Valley Transportation Authority to lease and then buy the parking lot for the old Evelyn light rail station for use as a safe parking space for homeless residents and eventually for affordable housing.
While we recognize the city has been working for years to address the dearth of affordable housing and related housing concerns — between 2016 and early 2018, city employees spent nearly 4,400 hours just on homeless-related issues, according to a March 2018 report — and we commend these steps taken recently, we'll be watching closely to see how quickly the city turns talk into action.
At the April 23 goal-setting meeting, people rallied at City Hall, calling for an end to the displacement of residents. After hours of public comment and discussion, the council directed staff to consider several options to address the housing crisis. They include identifying organizations that could partner with the city to purchase, rehabilitate and manage older apartment complexes; declaring a housing emergency, which would allow the city to swiftly create temporary safe parking sites in Mountain View and possibly regionally; and developing an approach to "use public property for maximum community benefit as housing, park space or other public space," according to the draft project list. Staff is set to make a recommendation about which projects should be included in the council goals work plan at the council meeting this Tuesday, May 21.
Some of the proposed projects, like using Shoreline Amphitheatre lots for a safe parking program and declaring a housing emergency, have been talked about for months and in some cases years. Case in point — in a July 2014 editorial about the city's jobs-to-housing imbalance, we wrote, "As desperation increases among residents unable to afford skyrocketing rent increases, would-be residents who work here can't find housing at all, and frustration mounts among locals trying to traverse gridlocked roadways. It is long past the time to get serious about this problem."
That was nearly five years ago. Five years in which the homeless population has increased and the jobs-to-housing imbalance has persisted.
It's past time for local leaders to dig in their heels and start working creatively — and in tandem — to find solutions.
Mountain View doesn't need to look far for inspiration. In San Francisco, where residents last year approved a measure that taxes the city's richest companies to fund homeless relief efforts, Mayor London Breed has proposed a November ballot measure that would eliminate restrictions that keep housing from being built on public property. If the measure is approved, hundreds of government-owned parcels could become sites for teacher housing and 100% affordable housing projects, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In Oakland, the city's proposed two-year budget has $1.5 million earmarked for its safe parking program and $5.1 million for its Tuff Shed program, housing homeless individuals in Tuff Shed shelters as part of its "Community Cabins" program. And in East Palo Alto, a safe parking program recently opened for up to 20 local RV dwellers. The program allows people living in RVs to park in the lot between 7:30 p.m. and 7 a.m., and in exchange for working with a case manager to find transitional housing.
Meanwhile, Mountain View's safe parking program currently only has room for eight small vehicles, and no RVs.
While the city cannot unilaterally tackle the housing crisis gripping the Bay Area, it has the power to do more. Local leaders should be doing what they can to cut through red tape and stem the tide of displacement, including working with regional partners to identify locations for affordable housing, restricting redevelopments that cause a net loss of housing and declaring a housing emergency to allow the city more flexibility in creating safe parking spots. Without swift action, the city stands to lose more of the people that make up its most vulnerable populations and see its cultural and socio-economic diversity suffer.