The Mountain View City Council postponed a pair of housing projects up for approval Tuesday, one of which would displace the residents of more than 100 apartments, due to a "shelter in place" order that prevents the public from attending the council meeting.
The decision Monday afternoon followed a growing number of messages from residents urging the council not to take action on significant items while public input is severely curtailed by the coronavirus crisis.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department announced an unprecedented six-county shelter-in-place order March 16 in response to the growing spread of the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The order mandates that all residents stay at home and limit travel to "essential activities" for the next three weeks, which includes shopping for groceries and supplies or taking care of family members and pets. The order explicitly bans all non-essential gatherings of any number of individuals.
The order took effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, coinciding with a critical meeting in which the City Council was set to consider two housing projects proposed by the developer SummerHill Homes. One of the projects proposes razing the 116-unit Meadowood Apartments, located at 1555 W. Middlefield Road, and replacing them with 115 rowhouses.
In the lead-up to the meeting, residents urged the council to postpone approval of the project at least until the shelter-in-place order has been lifted. Projects that replace older rent-controlled apartments with new ownership units have been controversial, decried by tenant advocacy groups and some council members as a loss of Mountain View's dwindling supply of more-affordable housing.
Under the new restrictions, residents at risk of displacement would have limited options for making their case against the project, Mountain View resident Serge Bonte told council members in an email. He said the city ought to be using its emergency powers to prevent displacement, not to approve a project that would kick residents out of their homes.
"In light of the COVID-19 crisis, it's beyond comprehension that you would keep it on your agenda next Tuesday," Bonte said.
Steven Margulies, a Meadowood Apartment tenant and 77-year-old veteran, sent an email to council members urging them to postpone the item. He said he does not feel safe participating in-person at the meeting, yet the decision will have huge implications for him. His income is limited -- he relies on Social Security and a job working as a smog technician -- and he would have difficulty getting to the Palo Alto VA Medical Center for health care if he forced to move.
"I would very much like to be able to fully participate in any decision-making process which not only affects myself, but also affects the greater good of Mountain View," Margulies said.
Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga told the Voice that the council appears to have time to postpone the project's approval. State law prohibits the council from sitting on a complete project application for more than 180 days without a public hearing, so the council has until June to hear the item, she said.
"It looks like we do have more time, so that's one hurdle that we've been able to overcome," she said.
Abe-Koga said the city is trying to improve ways for residents to participate in council meetings remotely. Along with emailed comments, she said the city is working on a system in which public comments can be done over the phone and heard over speakers in the council chambers. As of Monday it was unclear whether the call-in system would be ready for Tuesday.
"I think it would be wise to maybe push it out until for a couple weeks or until we're better equipped to accommodate public input," she said.
Councilman Lucas Ramirez said he agreed with the decision, and that the city is taking sensible precautions by limiting council meetings to only the most important and urgent items.
"The mayor and the city manager are responding appropriately given the severity of the epidemic," he said.
SummerHill's proposal is significant because it was deemed complete by city staff prior to 2020, meaning it's not subject to new anti-displacement measures required by the state. Under SB 330, projects cannot reduce the number of housing units; must preserve the number of rent-controlled units; and must provide more significant tenant relocation assistance. The proposal at 1555 W. Middlefield is likely the last project in Mountain View that proposes tearing down older apartments that will not be subject to SB 330.
When the project does eventually come back for consideration, Abe-Koga said there's really nothing the council can do to stop it. The developer isn't asking for any zoning exemptions, essentially making it a by-right project. Though there are currently 116 apartments, the property is technically only zoned for a maximum of 115 units.
"It's completely zone-conforming," she said. "There's really no grounds to not approve it."
Also postponed from the Tuesday, March 17, council meeting is a second proposal by SummerHill homes to construct a seven-story, 427-unit housing complex along East Middlefield Road. The project would be the first residential project to be located in the East Whisman area of the city, which was rezoned last year to allow up to 5,000 housing units.
The project includes 270 apartment, 157 condos and 36 townhomes all in the same complex, with an unusual mix of affordable units. There would be no below-market-rate ownership units, but 10% of the apartments will be designated for low-income families and 15% for moderate-income families.
Council members have sought for years to boost housing for middle-class families, arguing that new housing developments are either too expensive or deed-restricted for people making up to 80% of the area's median income -- or $103,900 for a family of four. Between 2015 and 2019, the city has not issued any permits for moderate-income housing.
The tentative plan is for the council to revisit both housing proposals for possible approval on May 5. Additionally, the March 24 council meeting has been canceled, with the next council meeting scheduled on April 14.