In just eight short years, Mountain View is being asked to grow by close to 30% under a new state housing mandate that has cities across California scrambling to rezone for a spurt of residential development.
State housing officials are requiring the nine-county Bay Area to zone for at least 441,176 new housing units between 2023 and 2031, a hefty increase from prior eight-year cycles. The high growth targets are seen as a way to ameliorate the regional jobs-housing imbalance and put a dent in the high cost of housing.
The process, called the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), has been particularly burdensome on Mountain View, which is being asked to grow by a whopping 11,135 housing units -- nearly a 30% increase over today's housing stock. By comparison, the city was asked to grow by about 8.6% between 2015 and 2023.
At the Oct. 20 Environmental Planning Commission meeting, city officials laid out plans for how exactly to meet the tall order. It appears likely that the city can lean heavily on areas already rezoned for housing growth -- including North Bayshore and East Whisman -- even though both were rezoned prior to the latest allocation.
The RHNA process doesn't require that the units get built, only that there is adequate zoning and a clear path for developers to build the homes. It's possible that the city could identify enough sites ripe for housing that there won't need to be any vast changes to the city's existing residential plans, said Stephanie Hagar, a consultant for the city.
"We know that Mountain View has created a lot of capacity through various Precise Plans that you've adopted over the last several years and there's also potential for some other sites throughout the city," Hagar said. "So at this point in time we're hopeful that we will be able to identify enough sites without having to rezone."
Trouble is, some of that planned development in North Bayshore and East Whisman may be at risk, and state officials may be reluctant to accept the city's zoning plans as realistic. Burdensome taxes and fees on residential development can be seen as an impediment on housing growth, and the state could decide to preclude both areas from being used to satisfy the RHNA allocation.
Developers have repeatedly called out Mountain View's burdensome costs for building in North Bayshore, particularly park and school fees, and the problem could get worse soon. The Mountain View Whisman School District is considering imposing a parcel tax on homes north of Central Expressway, which is predicted to reduce housing development in the area -- particularly affordable housing.
"It would be considered a constraint on housing development, which could preclude the city's use of those areas for the site inventory used to satisfy the city's obligation under the state's regional housing needs assessment," according to a city staff report.
In a letter to the Planning Commission, Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the school district faces a massive unfunded obligation to house more than 2,000 new students generated by the projected housing growth, which would require five new schools costing close to $1 billion.
These newly formed neighborhoods deserve schools that are close by, Rudolph said, and doing so will require contributions from the residents, the city and developers.
"Our community has come to expect elementary schools that are within a mile radius of the neighborhoods that they serve," Rudolph said in the letter. "But without the community's assistance, I fear that the promise of an equitable education will only be afforded to those who reside in certain pockets of our community."
North Bayshore and East Whisman are not the only options for meeting the state's housing mandate. The city is also weighing significant changes to the so-called R3 zoning, which would revamp residential zoning rules across 480 acres of the city. As of April, the R3 changes could spur close to 9,000 new units, largely through redevelopment.
Residents raised serious concerns at the Planning Commission meeting about overreliance on R3 zoning as a means to meet the state housing requirements. Robert Cox, a former planning commissioner, said residential growth in North Bayshore and East Whisman has been carefully planned and vetted by the community, while R3 zoning has yet to be approved and could cause serious problems.
By ratcheting up density, Cox said the city runs the risk of accelerating redevelopment and the loss of older, more affordable apartments.
Housing growth created by R3 zoning changes will also be far more visible to existing residents, including single-family neighborhoods that border apartments and other multifamily developments. Resident Toni Rath, who described the R3 update as an "upzoning," told planning commissioners that the changes will be deeply unpopular with residents.
"This should come as no surprise because it jeopardizes the character of Mountain View neighborhoods," Rath said.
The Planning Commission meeting marked an early stage in the update of the city's housing element, and showed early signs that the city will have to walk a fine line between spurring development and meeting the demand for amenities. Resident Bill Lambert said Mountain View cannot have a narrow focus on increased density without a commensurate increase in transportation services, school capacity and parks and open space. The northern side of the city, in particular, has a dearth of available park space despite shouldering significant residential growth.
But Kat Wortham, a member of the Housing Action Coalition, pointed out that the city is already asking a lot of developers, with park fees that are already discouraging new housing development by making it too costly to build.
"Mountain View has some of the highest park fees in the county," Wortham said. "Lowering those park fees to allow for more development to occur in the city would be very helpful."
Planning commissioners did not take formal action, but instead weighed in on key priorities that the city should focus on during the update of the housing element. The sprawling list of priorities includes anti-displacement measures for existing residents and "no net loss" policies for housing redevelopment, along with new methods to preserve the city's naturally affordable housing.
While it's up to developers to ultimately build the housing, Commissioner Hank Dempsey said the city should work to streamline the development process and reduce hurdles for those seeking to build housing in Mountain View.
"I think it's an important question to talk about -- what else we can do better on our side to get things out the door," Dempsey said. "Because that's one thing we have pretty good control over."
And while the RHNA housing requirements in Mountain View may be unusually high, Commissioner Preeti Hehmeyer said the city should see the allocation as a positive sign.
"I think in some ways it might be a compliment to see that we have an abundance of jobs, we have transit, we have all these amenities that make Mountain View a desirable community," she said. "Where can we open our arms and say we want more neighbors in our city."