The days are numbered for another complex of older, more affordable rent-controlled apartments in Mountain View after the City Council voted Tuesday to approve a project that would raze the homes and replace them with for-sale rowhouses.
The narrow 4-3 vote is the latest in a string of redevelopments in the city that demolish aging apartments and replace them with pricey homes that are expected to sell for $1.2 million. Though housing advocates and social justice groups criticized the project for pushing out lower-income residents, city officials say they have limited means to deny a project that complies with zoning standards.
The developer, DeNardi Wang Homes, LLC, proposed tearing down the 70 apartments at the Mountain View Gardens apartment complex at 570 S. Rengstorff Ave. and replacing them with 85 rowhouses. The project meets all the zoning standards -- with plenty of parking and a unit count well below what's allowed on the property -- and complies with state laws that allow for streamlined approval by the city.
"The city cannot deny a code compliant project without making written findings that the project would result in specific, quantifiable health and safety impacts in violation of an objective city standard," said Community Development Director Aarti Shrivastava.
What that means is that City Council members were once again faced with approving a project that they appear legally obligated to accept, even if it means displacing lower-income residents and demolishing housing stock that's subject to rent control. The decision Tuesday mirrors the loss of apartments at 1555 W. Middlefield Road and 2310 Rock St., along with the redevelopment of the Moffett Manor Apartments in 2018.
Adding to the heartburn, city officials determined that the developer's application was deemed complete prior to Jan. 1, 2020, making it exempt from a key state law that requires redevelopment projects to offer old tenants equally affordable new units.
Despite the sense of inevitability, some council members voted against the proposal, either out of principal or in hopes that the developer could be coaxed into more concessions to benefit the community. Councilwoman Sally Lieber slammed the project for replacing affordable housing, subject to rent control, with "expensive, bloated units" that will be too costly for many to afford.
"This is a really textbook example of gentrification that is eating our community alive," Lieber said. "At some point we're going to wake up and not have any more hospital workers or grocery workers. We're not going to have people to do regular jobs because they just simply cannot be within three hours of Mountain View."
The proposal also took flak from housing advocates despite its addition of homes to the area. Representatives from [email protected] said the project only exacerbates the housing crisis in Mountain View by taking away housing from low and middle-income workers, while resident Marilyn Winkleby told council members the project needs to provide its own share of affordable homes and compensate for the loss of apartments.
"If this trend of demolishing affordable units continues, Mountain View will become an elite community, without housing for our essential workers," Winkleby said in a letter.
Jackie Cashen, a resident previously displaced from redevelopment at 2310 Rock St., said many of her former neighbors are now scattered across the country and separated from family members, and that the proposal at 570 S. Rengstorff is poised to do the same. She said the traffic and employment problems in the area are fueled by workers being unable to afford to live in Mountain View, and that the council should resist the loss of even more affordable units.
"Don't let any more affordable housing slip through our fingers and make a difficult situation even worse than it already is," she said.
Outright denying the project could invite a legal challenge, however. In a letter on behalf of the property owner, Tod Spieker of Spieker Companies, attorney Matthew Francois warned that the council has an obligation to approve a code-compliant project just like it did for past redevelopment proposals, and cannot arbitrarily dump the project. What's more, he argued the council could only deny the project on narrow grounds related to public health and safety, which would not apply.
"There is no evidence, let alone a preponderance of the evidence on the record, as required, to support findings that the project would have a specific, adverse impact upon the public health and safety," Francois wrote.
Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said she was supportive of the project, and that the objections raised by her colleagues can't be used to unfairly block the proposal.
"When a project is fully compliant, I'm hard-pressed to find a reason to deny it," she said. "Not liking a project or wanting greater density or wanting something different is not a reason we can use on this."
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said the council ought to support the proposal in the interest of fairness, and that it's not fair to describe the homes as overly pricey, luxury rowhouses. She said $1.2 million is a starter home price, and that younger friends of hers who are looking to buy their first home are seeking something in that price range.
"When we talk about middle income and the 'missing middle,' this is the price range that they're looking at," Abe-Koga said.
The council ultimately voted 4-3 to approve the project, with council members Pat Showalter, Ellen Kamei, Abe-Koga and Matichak voting in favor, and council members Lieber, Lucas Ramirez and Alison Hicks voting against.
The Mountain View Gardens apartments have already been partially cleared out. Of the tenants on the property, 31 have already vacated, while 37 have applied for relocation assistance in preparation for the redevelopment. Households living in the apartment complex are currently paying anywhere from $2,158 to $3,208 in monthly rent.