More of Mountain View's older, rent-controlled apartments will be demolished to make way for new ownership housing, after the Mountain View City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to approve a rowhouse redevelopment along Middlefield Road.
It's the latest in a wave of projects that have eroded the city's affordable housing stock in favor of for-sale rowhouses and townhomes, raising concerns that lower-income tenants are being displaced in their wake. Adding to the anxiety is the worry that tenants will have a tough time moving in light of the new coronavirus pandemic.
But council members say their hands are tied: The project meets zoning requirements, and the city has little discretion to block the property owner from exiting the rental market. And while the council has vowed for years to find ways to slow the loss of older homes and better help displaced residents, it has yet to pass a comprehensive plan.
The proposal by SummerHill Homes replaces the 116 units that make up the Meadowood Apartments at 1555 W. Middlefield Road with 115 three-story rowhouses, each with an estimated $1.5 million sale price and no below-market-rate units. The project would essentially create a long block of houses on the south side of the road spanning from Burgoyne Street to San Pierre Way.
The May 19 deliberations had a sense of deja vu, with council members citing the inevitable nature of the project while lamenting the loss of homes that have been naturally affordable for decades. The same conflict came up when the council approved rowhouses on Walker Drive, Montecito Avenue, and in two locations on Rock Street in December 2018 and again in April last year.
By the city's estimates, Mountain View is on pace to destroy 127 of its rent-controlled apartments every year.
Echoing the concerns over displacement, some residents emailed the council or spoke via Zoom during the meeting opposing the project, saying it would inevitably boot vulnerable tenants out of Mountain View. The families living at Meadowood include seniors, low-income immigrants and people with disabilities, said resident Jessie Cardenas, many of whom are not going to be able to afford the multimillion-dollar homes in the project.
"You're giving this (housing) to other people, but you're taking it away from the people who really need it," he said.
Resident Kimberly Richardson told the council in an email that city residents are sick of seeing affordable homes being torn down to provide "luxury units for rich people," and protested the loss of 55 heritage trees from the site, while Sharon Gloster -- a homeowner near the Meadowood Apartments -- questioned what these large-scale redevelopments are doing to the makeup of the city.
"Will Mountain View just be home to tech workers? What will happen to our diverse community? Who will work in the lower-paying service jobs or teach in our schools or work for the city?" she asked.
Adding to the concerns, the redevelopment was approved amid the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent public health orders that have forced people to stay indoors and shut down businesses. Meadowood residents and advocacy groups worry that it will be difficult finding a new place to live by the move-out date of October 2020.
SummerHill representatives agreed at the meeting to a voluntary three-month grace period that would allow residents to stay through Jan. 22, 2021, if needed. In the event that the countywide moratorium on evictions is extended past October, SummerHill would be barred from ousting renters until the restrictions are lifted, according to city staff.
Council members didn't openly begrudge SummerHill Homes or the property owner at the meeting for proposing to raze the apartments, instead laying the blame elsewhere. Councilman Lucas Ramirez pointed to provisions in state law that "severely curtails" the council's discretion in reviewing code-compliant projects, and this is an instance where more local control would've been valuable.
"If we had greater discretion in reviewing projects like this, I think our conversations would look very different," Ramirez said. "But we don't have that discretion."
Others suggested that landlords are seeking to exit the rental market because of limits set by the city's rent control law, which caps annual rent increases on most housing units built before 1995. Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga referred to "unintended consequences" that have resulted in a spree of redevelopment projects.
"I understand the interests of certain advocacy groups to minimize the costs on tenants, but when you do that and you limit the ability of property owners to improve their units as well, they may choose to get out of the business as we're seeing," Abe-Koga said.
During the meeting, the Meadowood property owner stated that she currently faces millions of dollars in repairs to keep the aging apartments afloat, including the replacement of a 50-year-old plumbing system and new roofs, and that the renovation work would temporarily force residents out of the building.
Ramirez and Councilwoman Alison Hicks, who voted against the proposal, said they opposed the project on the grounds that the environmental review was lacking and failed to identify the full extent of the displacement resulting from the rowhouse development. The documents suggest that SummerHill's project "would not displace substantial numbers of existing people or housing," suggesting that the city's roughly 15,000 rent-controlled housing units would be available to the Meadowood tenants.
Ramirez said he wasn't convinced. Not only is the vacancy rate among those apartments very low -- hovering around 3.7%, according to the latest data -- but the displaced residents may not meeting the standard benchmark of having an income equal to at least three times the cost of rent. Given that an estimated 69 of the 116 households are either low or moderate-income families, Ramirez said he is concerned that they won't find another place to rent within the city.
On the contrary, SummerHill sought to convince the council that a majority of the tenants are not the longtime, vulnerable Mountain View residents that the council has sought to protect. Representatives from the developer cited their own data showing that the complex has frequent turnover -- 70% of the tenants have been at the complex for less than five years -- and that an estimated 75% of the tenants make more than 120% of the area's median income, or $153,000 for a family of four. This data appears to conflict with the project's own environmental review, Ramirez said.
Though the 1555 W. Middlefield Road proposal is in many ways similar to past projects that tear down older apartments, it could potentially be the last of its kind. City officials are crafting a wide range of anti-displacement policies, including a "no net loss" requirement that would prevent developers from building fewer homes than they tear down.
Even more significant is a new state law that took effect earlier this year. Senate Bill 330 would also prohibit cities from approving projects that reduce the total number of housing units, and would require developers to give all former tenants the first rights to return to new housing built on the property -- at the same level of rent they were paying before.
Though the law has been in effect for months, SummerHill Homes' project on Middlefield Road does not have to abide by the new rules. City staff say the project was deemed "complete" prior to Jan. 1, 2020, making it exempt from the provisions.