The recent action -- and inaction -- by the Mountain View City Council regarding vehicle dwellers is disheartening and somewhat baffling.
On Sept. 24, Mayor Lisa Matichak, Vice Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga, and council members Ellen Kamei and John McAlister bypassed opposition from dozens of impassioned residents and threats of litigation and a voter referendum to narrowly approve an all-hours ban on oversized vehicles parking in most neighborhoods, effective June 2020. Dissenting council members urged their colleagues to wait until June to decide on the proposal, when the city will consider whether to renew a shelter emergency passed earlier this year. Their argument: If the shelter emergency was resolved, then it would make sense to begin parking enforcement.
Abe-Koga argued that delaying action would amount to "kicking the can" on the issue, and Kamei ended up as the swing vote when she switched her support after McAlister made a motion to make the shelter crisis irrelevant to the parking ban.
Three days before that, the Mountain View Whisman school board rejected the idea of offering homeless students safe parking at one of the district's middle schools, citing the city's strict regulations and skepticism about whether homeless families could be convinced to self-identify and participate in the program. Of the nearly 300 occupied vehicles in Mountain View, 21 district students are living in 16 RVs, and two more children are living in one car, according to data collected by the school district.
"My gut is telling me that yes, morally it is the right thing to do," Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said. "But logistically and from a liability standpoint, it's not the place the district should be in."
This has been a common refrain among local government agencies when discussing the housing and homeless crisis: that they truly want to help, but their hands are tied up in red tape. Residents desperate for real action and solutions are tired of hearing it.
The sweeping nature of the RV ban and the council's insistence on passing it now -- even though it won't take effect until June 30, 2020 — isn't practical, and it certainly isn't the most moral approach. After council members threw their support behind a proposal in June to restrict overnight parking for large motor homes and trailers throughout the city from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. daily starting in January 2020, staff came back with the much stricter 24/7 ban that will segregate vehicle dwellers to industrial areas of town, farther from schools and services — and complaining residents.
Oversized vehicles will be prohibited from parking on any street with a designated bike lane or on streets deemed too narrow because they are less than 40 feet wide, which means dozens of miles of streets, including all of the city's suburban neighborhoods, will be off-limits. (Abe-Koga estimated this would amount to two-thirds of the city's streets.) Traffic safety was used as the rationale, but police have not cited oversized vehicles as a contributing factor in a rise in accidents, and the city has not provided any evidence that such vehicles are actually causing traffic hazards, especially along narrow streets.
The council approved this proposal despite repeated threats from a coalition of civil rights attorneys who warned they are ready to sue if the city went ahead with the parking ban. In their latest letter, they said the ban as proposed would have the same effect as a citywide ban, and argued the city's claim that it's in the name of traffic safety is just pretext.
"The staff report betrays the idea that the proposed ordinances are needed to protect the health and safety of Mountain View residents," the letter reads. "It speculates that oversized vehicles create safety concerns on streets equal to or wider than 40 feet but fails to provide any evidence for this assertion. In fact, Mountain View already has an ordinance restricting parking on narrow streets, but this ordinance defines 'narrow' as less than or equal to 30 feet. Without further factual findings, and particularly without findings from a traffic expert, it is impossible to understand the health and safety concerns behind this arbitrary cut-off."
It's hard not to question the motive in tying the all-hours ban to traffic concerns. Although Abe-Koga pointed out that she did not want to wait for an RV-related accident to happen to spur change, one would think that the ban would be implemented sooner than the end of June if there is an immediate safety concern. Everyone certainly wants to prevent collisions, but the city may have to spend quite a bit of time — and money — defending its rationale in court. That alone makes one question the logic of approving this ban now, in the midst of a council-declared shelter emergency and with more time needed to study its impacts. We can't help but wonder whether Matichak and Abe-Koga were influenced by the fact that their seats are up for re-election in November 2020, and that voters' rejection of former council members Pat Showalter and Lenny Siegel last year was seen as retribution for the growing homeless crisis.
The notion, as Abe-Koga expressed, that this move won't be "displacing that many folks" because "we have safe parking lots opening up and some streets still open" is misguided and lacks compassion.
The council did take positive steps to address homelessness last week, expanding the hours of its safe parking program to 5 p.m. to 9 a.m., raising the maximum number of emergency shelter beds from 78 to 150 and increasing the number of safe parking spots to 80. (Though half of these spaces are on lots that will be unavailable by spring.)
But the city is shooting itself in the foot with strict regulations of its own creation. The city's Environmental Planning Commission recently warned staff about loading too many rules on the safe parking program. But in updated regulations approved by the council Sept. 24, safe parking sites can open only in certain designated neighborhoods or zoning areas, and RVs need to be generously spaced. Requiring vehicle dwellers to relocate during the day — especially when there will be few streets to legally park on come next summer — means there will inevitably be less participation.
It's not clear whether city officials have spoken with any vehicle dwellers about what kind of program they'd participate in; it's evident they didn't exhaust all contacts who could potentially host safe parking lots, as Rudolph and Tom Myers, executive director of the Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos, both suggested at a council meeting in June. We hope that city officials are extensively reaching out to property owners about the prospect of hosting safe parking lots, particularly all-hours ones that could be prioritized for vehicle-dwelling families with children.
By implementing an all-hours RV ban, the city will force vehicle dwellers — many of whom work or attend school in Mountain View — to choose between leaving the city, fighting for a parking spot on one of the few streets not covered by the ban or sleeping on the streets if no other options exist.
In an op-ed in the Voice earlier this year, Abe-Koga and Matichak wrote, "We believe the Mountain View City Council has shown incredible character, compassion, and leadership on these very complex regional issues. And we challenge you to find another city in the area that has done more, relative to our size, on housing and homelessness." But it was those qualities that were missing in the council chambers last week when the RV ban was approved.
The council is expected to do a second reading of the ban before approving it on Tuesday, Oct. 22, giving residents another opportunity to make their voices heard — and council members the chance to reconsider.