The Mountain View City Council held off on enacting an immediate citywide parking ban on large vehicles, which was largely seen as a way to kick out the city's homeless living in motor homes and trailers. Instead, at the June 11 meeting, the council voted for a complicated muddle of measures to take one of the city's most intractable issues and kick the can down the road.
Described by one councilman as "sausage-making at its best," city leaders ended up crafting a complex compromise in the wee hours of Wednesday morning as they were clearly fatigued. The final deal involved a gradual ramp-up of restrictions on large vehicles as city staff continues to study extra enforcement measures.
As part of that compromise, council members agreed to soften a proposed citywide parking ban on so-called oversized vehicles, defined as any vehicle over 7 feet high, 7 feet wide or 22 feet in length. Back in March, five council members came out in support of the idea of a citywide ban, describing it as necessary in order to ensure drivers and cyclists have a clear line of sight on city streets. Those traffic safety concerns were called a pretext by opponents, who alleged it was masking the city's real intent to close off the city's neighborhoods to the growing population of people living in vehicles parked on the street.
Under the deal, council members threw their support behind a modified ban to restrict overnight parking for large motor homes and trailers throughout the city from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. every night of the week, starting on Jan. 1, 2020. In a related step, the city would also explore an all-hours ban for oversized vehicles in certain areas, including residential neighborhoods, city parks and street sections where they are determined to be safety hazards. Sometime in the fall, city staff members say they will return with a new parking ban ordinance, including a map of proposed areas to restrict parking. In addition, the city will also still consider a citywide ban at a future meeting next year.
The modified parking ban was approved in a 6-1 vote. Mayor Lisa Matichak, who was opposed, said the nighttime ban would do nothing to address the road hazards caused by large motor homes and trailers.
In the end, the city's scaled-back restrictions on RVs were seen as a letdown for a large contingent of housing advocates, attorneys and vehicle residents who stayed until the meeting ended near 3:30 a.m. to urge restraint. In a rare step, many apolitical groups waded into the thorny issue to plead for the city not to punish the city's most impoverished residents.
Pastor Brian Leong of the Lord's Grace Christian Church, who launched the city's safe parking program four years ago, said he was "appalled" that the city was now reneging on its compassionate approach. Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Rudoph Ayende urged the city to think of the 21 homeless students in his district who were living out of vehicles. Rev. Lisa McIndoo of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church described a couple, both in their 60s, who lost their home after a series of medical emergencies. Just like that, McIndoo said, snapping her fingers, a couple who lived in the area for 35 years were now resorting to sleeping in their car at a church parking lot.
Nonprofit leaders depicted the parking ban as a surefire way to make a hostile housing situation even worse.
"A ban, especially an immediate ban, would have have devastating consequences on some of our most vulnerable people," said Tom Myers, executive director of the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos. "It's a myth to believe that all people living in RVs are here by choice."
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the city's proposed parking ban prompted warnings from the ACLU and civil rights attorneys, who argued it would be unconstitutional because it would essentially criminalize the city’s homeless population. While the city softened some aspects, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley attorney Michael Trujillo said his chief concerns were unresolved. He said his clients, a group known as the Mountain View Vehicle Residents, would consider next steps, including whether to pursue a legal challenge.
"We're really disappointed to see the council move forward with the ban after so much overwhelming public comment against the measure," Trujillo said. "Our constitutional concerns with the city's original ban haven't changed in our analysis."
It was a dilemma for Mountain View council members, who have faced intense pressure from the city's suburban homeowners to do something about the car encampments scattered across town. Through hours of debate, City Council members made series of attempts to craft an ordinance to restrict parking, but most ideas fell short of a majority. Ahead of the meeting, Councilman Lucas Ramirez had drafted his own seven-step proposal as an alternative to an immediate vehicle ban. Among his suggestions was to ban oversized vehicles only during early-morning hours and in residential zones -- a system that he acknowledged would push the city's homeless into the industrial areas of town. Mountain View should enforce all large vehicles only in the event that a citywide shelter emergency was lifted, he proposed.
"I don't think the status quo is sustainable, so whatever action we take we should be thinking of ways to wind down the status quo," Ramirez said. "I don't believe the solution to the housing crisis is people living in spaces in perpetuity."
Borrowing some ideas from that template, Mayor Matichak made a motion for 24-hour-a-day ban on oversized vehicles, which would take effect starting in November, but the proposal failed in a 3-4 vote, with support from council members Ellen Kamei and Margaret Abe-Koga.
Councilman John McAlister made a competing motion to try an overnight parking ban starting in November, but that motion also failed in a 2-5 vote, only winning support from Kamei.
Councilman Chris Clark, who crafted the final motion, said he wanted to step up enforcement, but in a manner that avoided using "the most blunt tool possible." He proposed holding off on any enforcement until the city had first studied how to restrict parking in residential neighborhoods.
"I value the livelihood of the most vulnerable folks in our community over the convenience of (the critics)," Clark said. "Frankly, most of those who are complaining are people sitting in seven-figure homes or can afford $3,000-a-month rents."
Clark admitted his motion was delaying some of the difficult decisions, but it would at least provide time to study the impacts. Under his proposal, the city potentially could have three stages of parking prohibitions: a residential ban, an overnight ban and an all-hours ban if the council lifted a citywide shelter emergency around mid-2020.
This could be a huge problem for enforcement, City Manager Dan Rich said. The city could only prohibit parking in areas with street signs that clearly spell out these rules. City staff estimated it would take about 12 weeks to order, fabricate and install the signs.
"There's a strong likelihood we'd have to re-sign twice at least in some (neighborhoods)," Rich said. "We can't enforce anything until it's signed, and if you change the rules in a substantial way, then the signage has to reflect that."
Another problem is the city's safe parking program is certain to be incapable of handling an exodus of vehicle dwellers who need to stop parking along the curb. Currently, Mountain View has space for only eight vehicles. By November, city staff expect to open up as many as 60 spaces, including 20 at a Shoreline Amphitheatre parking lot, and another 20 at a former light-rail station parking lot.
In a separate study session earlier in the evening, the council discussed ways to encourage more property owners to open up unused sites for safe parking. One favored idea was to put the city police department in charge of managing permits, allowing applicants to avoid going through a lengthy public review process.