Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows, and Tuesday night's City Council meeting was a classic example.
A packed house of predominately Latino families came before the City Council on June 4 to express their fears of being priced out of Mountain View. They echoed the common refrain of the housing crisis -- ever-rising rents are threatening to drive out the city's service workers, its poor and its diversity.
But the group's call to action could have elicited a double-take for anyone listening. The families were advocating in favor of 226 new luxury apartments being planned by Prometheus Real Estate, a firm often criticized for spurring gentrification in Mountain View.
"I'm delighted to hear these officials from Prometheus are flexible," community activist Job Lopez said to the City Council. "Hopefully the developer and owner will work with you to achieve not only what they want but also what our brothers and sisters need."
However ironic, it was an alliance that made sense for all stakeholders. The tenants and families who attended the meeting almost all live at a nearby 48-unit apartment complex at 660 Mariposa Ave. Those apartments are more than 50 years old and priced significantly under market rate, about $1,800 a month for a two-bedroom unit.
But the age of the Mariposa apartments was showing, and its days seemed to be numbered. Prometheus had acquired the property a few years ago for more than $24 million, and it seemed all but certain to be destined for redevelopment.
That led to the curious scene at the June 4 meeting, in which Prometheus representatives pitched an 11th-hour deal -- What if they preserved the old Mariposa apartments in exchange for the affordable housing they were obligated to build as part of a separate project?
In his presentation, Prometheus Vice President Jon Moss gave a walk-through of his firm's plans to build 226 new apartments at 1696 Villa St. This large development has been winding its way through the city's review process for years, and city planners had estimated that Prometheus would need to either provide 33 subsidized units or pay $10.8 million in fees to meet its affordable housing requirements.
In a letter sent to the city over the weekend, Moss proposed using money for the Villa Street project's affordable housing to save the Mariposa apartments. He acknowledged it was a last-minute idea, and a lot of factors still need to be investigated. But Moss explained he was impartial so long as the council approved his project.
"We have this property down the street that has similar units, and it seemed like a potential win for the city, community and the residents that live there," he said. "If this creates too much angst and complexity, we're more than happy to just pull this proposal, and we'll just do the (affordable housing) on site."
But while the Prometheus team acted nonchalant, dozens of residents from the Mariposa apartments were in a state of desperation, describing it as a matter just short of life or death. Standing with her parents, seventh grader Erica Lopez told the council her dream of someday going to college was at stake if they lost their apartment.
"If my family had to move, it would ruin my personal life," she said. "I've lived here all my life and I've always hoped in my future in trying to get into St. Francis High School, going to Foothill and going to university."
Speaking to the Voice, Moss said there are no definitive plans for the Mariposa property. The site could be redeveloped or sold off, but that decision has not been made yet, he said.
Prometheus briefly listed the Mariposa apartments for sale earlier this year. The listing was later removed before any sale transpired, but it served as a reminder to residents of how precarious their situation is.
But the proposal to save the Mariposa apartments left many unanswered questions. If the idea went forward, the nonprofit Bridge Housing would buy the apartments from Prometheus with the city's help. But before that could happen, Bridge Housing officials said they needed to inspect the property to determine all the aging building's repair and maintenance issues, which could run as high as $200,000 per unit. Prometheus officials acknowledged that three other housing nonprofits had been in talks to take over the Mariposa property, but they withdrew after finding it wouldn't work financially.
Speaking to that issue, Brad Wiblin of Bridge Housing indicated his group still needs to figure out the right formula for rents if they took over the Mariposa apartments. Their goal is to keep all current tenants in their homes, but also to eventually bring rents to what's considered affordable for households earning around 80% of the area median income, he said.
City staff indicated they also need to do some homework to compare the value of saving 48 run-down apartments at Mariposa against building 33 brand new inclusionary apartments at the Villa Street property.
"We'd need to look at a pro forma," said Community Development Director Aarti Shrivastava. "We need to get to a point where (the affordable housing options) are determined to be equitable."
City staff proposed approving the Villa Street project with the caveat that the affordable housing component is still up in the air. Once all parties finish their due diligence, the city could decide whether it's worth saving the Mariposa apartments. If the answer is no, then Prometheus would be required to build affordable housing as part of the Villa Street project.
Overall, the City Council was receptive to the idea, describing it as an innovative workaround to one of the city's most intractable problems. Elected leaders have faced a series of harrowing decisions in recent months involving redevelopment projects that require displacing large numbers of low-income families in order to build market-rate housing. If they could dodge a dilemma down the road, council members said they were willing to give the deal a try.
"If we can avoid displacement, then it's worth looking at," said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. "I understand the timing issues, but I do appreciate the possibility of a win-win situation."
It was an idea that generated unanimous approval, even though there was plenty of nervousness about the uncertainty of the proposal. Plus, it would be a solution that only maintains the status quo.
"We're not creating any new affordable housing units, but we're just preserving what we already have," said Councilwoman Alison Hicks. "Just thought I'd point that out."