In running to serve another term on the Mountain View City Council, Lenny Siegel said he believes there is so much more at stake than approving housing projects and improving public transit. He sees the job as a means to chip away at economic inequality that has reached historic heights.
Silicon Valley could very well have the greatest concentration of wealth in human history, he said, with four trillion-dollar companies and dozens of billionaires creating an affordability crisis for those who can't afford the exorbitant cost of living that comes with it. There's an "hourglass" population and economy here with the haves and the have-nots, and it's up to civic leaders to fix that.
"There's this underlying problem of socioeconomic inequality, and I see my participation in city government, and as a community activist, as trying to address that inequality," Siegel said.
Siegel has lived in Mountain View for nearly half a century, spending much of that time as an activist in the community. He has long been a familiar face at protests spanning from the anti-war movement at Stanford University in the 1960s to this year, when he staged multiple demonstrations following George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police officers.
Siegel was elected to the council in 2014, but lost his bid for reelection in 2018. In seeking another term, he said his goal is to support housing through both new construction and the protection and preservation of older properties, and that his track record shows he can work well with others to accomplish that.
"I have the persona to be an effective council member, and I've been a strong advocate for building housing and for housing justice," he said.
Siegel points to his accomplishments during his first term as proof he can get things done. He helped shepherd the North Bayshore Precise Plan, which rezoned the area to allow up to 9,850 new homes, and lead the way in arranging a complex deal to bring a school and park to the San Antonio neighborhood of the city.
Siegel said he also spearheaded the city's Measure P business license tax, bringing together council members with disparate views to put the idea on the ballot in 2018.
"I was able to work with people like (Councilman) John McAlister, who are far from me ideologically but we found common ground."
While Siegel said he remains an unwavering advocate for housing growth and would oppose tearing down "naturally affordable" housing, he said the city now has to contend with a new problem. COVID-19 has put many people out of work and behind on rent, and it may fall to individual cities to stop a wave of evictions due to nonpayment of rent.
The city currently lacks the data needed to measure the magnitude of the problem and form the right response, he said. There are rumors that a huge number of people are self-evicting, while others say tenants in Mountain View are mostly keeping up with the rent.
Siegel said the city must do more to ensure homes actually get built in North Bayshore, which could include pushing Google and SyWest to agree on the Gateway site. He said the city should also lean on VTA to relocate its vehicle yard in the area, noting that it's extraordinarily valuable real estate being used to fix buses.
Looking to the future, Siegel said the industrial Terra Bella area of the city is ripe for housing development, and that he would support affordable housing in the downtown corridor. He said he supports a moratorium on downtown office development.
Siegel has supported the city's rent control program since it came before voters in 2016, though he concedes there are some fixes that could be made. He believes it should be extended to cover mobile homes, and said that he favored tweaks that would allow landlords to recoup the costs of doing seismic retrofitting on older apartment buildings.
The City Council attempted to address these issues through Measure D on the March ballot, but Siegel said the council squandered the opportunity by making it too easy for landlords to raise the rent on tenants beyond what is allowed under the current law.
"What happened is the council took that idea and ran with it and created a huge loophole that caused residents to oppose Measure D," he said.
When it comes to growing homelessness and residents living in cars and RVs, Siegel said the city must take a compassionate approach. He led the signature-gathering effort that blocked a city ordinance banning oversized vehicles on most city streets, which is now coming before voters this November as Measure C.
While the measure claims to be about traffic safety, Siegel said its goal is to push homeless people out of the city.
"They claim it's about narrow neighborhood streets. It's not," Siegel said. "The purpose of the ordinance, Measure C, is to throw people out of town."
Siegel said the city can address the hundreds of inhabited cars and RVs along residential areas by expanding the city's safe parking program, significantly boosting the size of the safe parking lot outside of Shoreline Amphitheatre. He said it's a myth that Mountain View is somehow a magnet for RV dwellers by taking a softer approach, and pointed out that cities all over the Bay Area are dealing with the same problem.
On the topic of police reform, Siegel said he believes the Mountain View Police Department is better than most, and that he got police Chief Max Bosel to take a knee during one of the Floyd protests -- a sign that the department is sensitive to the civil unrest that has gripped the country this year.
While the department does disproportionately stop and arrest Black and Latino people, Siegel said he is reluctant to make any concrete changes to the department without more data and fact-finding. It could be a need for more implicit bias training, but it could also reflect the department's priorities.
"If their job is to stop people with broken traffic lights they're probably going to end up getting more Black and brown people and other poor people," Siegel said. "If you assign them other tasks, going after other white-collar crime, you probably won't have the same list of suspects."
Looking at the department's use of force data, Siegel said it appears that police in Mountain View are doing a good job exercising restraint in handling potentially violent incidents. But he said he's willing to change his mind, and that he has heard from people who have had different experiences interacting with officers.
Siegel said he does not favor abolishing the police and doesn't know specifically what "defunding" would mean, but that he was reluctant to start slashing the Mountain View Police Department's budget. The city's salaries are on the higher end, he said, which means the city can recruit a more professional, well-educated police force.
On balancing the budget during the COVID-19 recession, Siegel said he would support small, across-the-board cuts except for items that generate revenue, and that he believes the city can get away with only marginal cuts. While some businesses are struggling, in turn reducing city revenue, he believes these problems will be short-lived.
"I'm expecting that Mountain View's economy will rebound by the middle of next year and we will return to having the problems of prosperity, and not the problems of a downturn," he said.