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Year in review: Mountain View forges ahead on housing goals, homelessness response

Housing growth remained a top priority for Mountain View even during the pandemic. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

In some ways, 2021 ended the same way it began. A country fatigued by COVID-19 is once again facing an unprecedented surge in new cases, shattering hopes that things will return to normal any time soon.

Yet Mountain View -- still under a state of emergency since March 2020 -- has been remarkably resilient. Schools reopened in the spring and, barring some hiccups early on, have been a safe environment for students and staff. City hall, previously worried about a massive budget deficit, managed to stay in the black without having to fire staff or cut essential services.

Undeterred by the pandemic, the city has spent the last year pushing ahead on its major goals as if it's back to business as usual. Ambitious housing plans, long on the top of the city's list of priorities, hummed along smoothly in 2021, and efforts to house the homeless won the city praise from Gov. Gavin Newsom. Instead of fixing budget deficits with federal stimulus money, the city is looking to invest it in new programs to help the city's most needy residents.

But with 2021 now the rearview mirror, some questions still linger. Nonprofit leaders stress that they still don't know how the loss of the eviction moratorium is going to affect those behind on housing payments due to the pandemic. And for those living on the streets in vehicles, there is still no word on whether Mountain View's prohibitions on RV parking will prevail against legal challenges.

What's more, city officials can only speculate how traffic will look in the coming years. Major tech employers have been reluctant to ask workers to come back into the office, and have repeatedly pushed out the return date. Google, for example, just last month ditched its plans to have employees come back on Jan. 10, putting off what would have been a hybrid model.

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Meeting the mandate on housing

In May, regional planners released an aggressive plan for building housing across the nine-county Bay Area, mandating that 101 cities and municipalities zone for a grand total of 441,176 housing units that could feasibly be built between 2023 and 2031.

For some cities, their share of the housing seemed like too much to bear. Numerous cities including Palo Alto and Los Altos attempted to appeal their housing allocation, insisting that the housing goals were unrealistically high. The process has caused tension in many local communities who feel that the process wrests local control away from cities.

But in Mountain View, the tenor has been different. When asked to zone for 11,135 additional homes -- a roughly 30% increase over the existing housing stock -- city officials quibbled with the methodology but nevertheless accepted the call to action. Since then it's been crunch time trying to figure out how to incorporate that kind of growth into the city.

Despite 2021 being a pandemic year, the city has been as active as ever on the housing front, approving numerous projects including ultra-dense apartments in the East Whisman area and a mixed bag of housing redevelopment. One project replaced rent-controlled apartments and caused considerable concern among tenant advocates, while another one garnered praise for guaranteeing existing tenants a future, subsidized place to live.

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Perhaps more exciting is future development for which the city laid the groundwork in 2021. Google submitted detailed plans for building 7,000 housing units in North Bayshore, which would transform the area north of 101 into an urban center with 15-story buildings. And the City Council voted in August to replace a downtown parking lot with 120 affordable housing units practically next door to City Hall.

Google's North Bayshore housing proposal calls for 7,000 housing units alongside new office buildings, the largest project in city history. Courtesy city of Mountain View.

City officials also began the groundwork for revising Mountain View's so-called "R3" zoning, a critical step towards changing the way multifamily housing looks in the city. The goal is to steer the direction of redevelopment towards more diverse housing types -- rather than just a long line of carbon-copy row houses -- and so far appears to allow higher densities that would increase housing production in the city.

Is Mountain View on the right track when it comes to housing, at least compared to its peers? The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury seems to think so, releasing a report last month that gave glowing praise to the city for its progress on meeting affordable housing needs. The report points out that Mountain View has built significantly more affordable units than Palo Alto since 2015, thanks to its zoning and planning process, as well as strong political willpower to build housing.

Staving off homelessness

It's been nearly three years since Santa Clara County documented a huge increase in homelessness in Mountain View, but 2021 brought the city's most significant response to the growing regional problem.

It started right away, too. In January 2021, city officials announced an early plan to convert Crestview Hotel into affordable housing for the homeless. It won swift approval from the City Council at one of its first meetings of the year, and got the ball rolling on hotel conversion plans.

Since then, the county has taken the lead on the majority of the work. Santa Clara County supervisors have since bought the hotel for $23 million and will operate the housing project once it's ready for occupancy. The city, for its part, will be paying for the conversion work.

Crestview Hotel is slated to become housing for the homeless. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

While the approvals have been swift, the numerous public meetings have shown a divided community. A large contingent of residents, most of whom appear to hail from near the city's border with Sunnyvale, where Crestview is located, have come out in opposition, warning that homeless housing is an inappropriate use for the property. Among other things, they claim it's too close to schools, parks and children's playgrounds.

Some have repeatedly warned that the affordable housing could bring drug addicts and the mentally ill into the community, and demanded that there be a vigorous screening process to prevent that from happening.

But perhaps the crowning achievement this year in the homeless response has been LifeMoves Mountain View, a transitional housing project that creates a pipeline for the unhoused to stabilize and get the help they need to find permanent housing.

The 100-unit project only exists today because city staff and the nonprofit LifeMoves worked at breakneck speeds to apply for state funding under a tight deadline. What followed was an expeditious construction schedule using modular, prefabricated units that made it cheap and easy to build, and doors officially opened in May.

Many of the homeless people who make it into these units are from Mountain View, and some have made the full transition from living in a vehicle to securing a spot in permanent affordable housing somewhere in the city. Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the project in June and described it as a model for other cities across the state to emulate. Three months later, Santa Clara County supervisors announced plans to duplicate the project and drastically increase the number of transitional units to get people off the street.

Gov. Gavin Newsom gave praise to Mountain View's new transitional housing project, LifeMoves Mountain View. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

However, Mountain View's homelessness response in 2021 also came with a crackdown on people living in vehicles on most city streets. Following the passage of Measure C last year, the city began enforcement of the so-called "narrow streets" ordinance, in which RVs and other oversized vehicles will be prohibited from parking on any street that is 40 feet wide or narrower.

Hundreds of vehicles -- the majority of them RVs -- have been used by homeless residents as makeshift shelters for years, and the ordinance was passed as a direct response to complaints from residents that public roadways were being used for habitation. Rather than take an aggressive approach to enforcement this year, the city took longer than expected to fabricate the "No Parking" signs and begin installation, which started in August.

The fate of the RV parking restrictions is still in limbo. In July, multiple legal advocacy groups sued the city claiming that the parking restrictions violated state and federal constitutional rights of the homeless, and amount to an attempt to oust the unhoused from the city. In November, a federal court judge declined to dismiss the case, which is now slated for a possible trial in December 2022.

So far, it doesn't appear that the parking restrictions are actually reducing the number of inhabited vehicles. While the city has been slow to release its own survey results, a community-led survey in November found hundreds of RVs still parked on city streets.

Inhabited RVs have been a focus for Mountain View in 2021, with new social programs and parking enforcement going into effect to get people off the street. Photo by Sammy Dallal

What's next in the pandemic response?

While many cities on the Peninsula struggled with budget cuts as a result of the pandemic -- and subsequently used federal stimulus money to bail themselves out -- Mountain View took a different strategy.

With close to $15 million flowing into city coffers from the American Rescue Plan Act, city officials proposed that the bulk of the cash go into social services that can help those in need, particularly those in debt or struggling to stay housed as a result of COVID-19. While some of that money is being spent in a traditional way, with $1 million funneled into the nonprofit CSA for direct financial assistance, some programs are a little more experimental.

In May, the City Council agreed to set aside $1 million to the Mountain View Solidarity Fund, a grassroots group deeply engaged with the city's Latino community. The hope is that the group will be able to work with hard-to-reach residents and families who are in dire financial straits.

The city is also using the federal aid as a chance to test the waters on a guaranteed basic income, an idea that has gained popularity in recent years as a way to stabilize lower-income residents barely scraping by. The idea, originally proposed by councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, is to provide families with monthly checks with no strings attached, giving them the autonomy to spend the money as they see fit.

Since then, the city has put together a concept in which $500 monthly payments will be given to families making up to 30% of the area's median income, or $49,700 for a family of four, as well as custodial caregivers with children under the age of 18. The city was originally supposed to adopt the guaranteed basic income program in November or December last year, but the date has since been pushed out to Feb. 22.

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Year in review: Mountain View forges ahead on housing goals, homelessness response

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Wed, Jan 5, 2022, 1:08 pm

In some ways, 2021 ended the same way it began. A country fatigued by COVID-19 is once again facing an unprecedented surge in new cases, shattering hopes that things will return to normal any time soon.

Yet Mountain View -- still under a state of emergency since March 2020 -- has been remarkably resilient. Schools reopened in the spring and, barring some hiccups early on, have been a safe environment for students and staff. City hall, previously worried about a massive budget deficit, managed to stay in the black without having to fire staff or cut essential services.

Undeterred by the pandemic, the city has spent the last year pushing ahead on its major goals as if it's back to business as usual. Ambitious housing plans, long on the top of the city's list of priorities, hummed along smoothly in 2021, and efforts to house the homeless won the city praise from Gov. Gavin Newsom. Instead of fixing budget deficits with federal stimulus money, the city is looking to invest it in new programs to help the city's most needy residents.

But with 2021 now the rearview mirror, some questions still linger. Nonprofit leaders stress that they still don't know how the loss of the eviction moratorium is going to affect those behind on housing payments due to the pandemic. And for those living on the streets in vehicles, there is still no word on whether Mountain View's prohibitions on RV parking will prevail against legal challenges.

What's more, city officials can only speculate how traffic will look in the coming years. Major tech employers have been reluctant to ask workers to come back into the office, and have repeatedly pushed out the return date. Google, for example, just last month ditched its plans to have employees come back on Jan. 10, putting off what would have been a hybrid model.

Meeting the mandate on housing

In May, regional planners released an aggressive plan for building housing across the nine-county Bay Area, mandating that 101 cities and municipalities zone for a grand total of 441,176 housing units that could feasibly be built between 2023 and 2031.

For some cities, their share of the housing seemed like too much to bear. Numerous cities including Palo Alto and Los Altos attempted to appeal their housing allocation, insisting that the housing goals were unrealistically high. The process has caused tension in many local communities who feel that the process wrests local control away from cities.

But in Mountain View, the tenor has been different. When asked to zone for 11,135 additional homes -- a roughly 30% increase over the existing housing stock -- city officials quibbled with the methodology but nevertheless accepted the call to action. Since then it's been crunch time trying to figure out how to incorporate that kind of growth into the city.

Despite 2021 being a pandemic year, the city has been as active as ever on the housing front, approving numerous projects including ultra-dense apartments in the East Whisman area and a mixed bag of housing redevelopment. One project replaced rent-controlled apartments and caused considerable concern among tenant advocates, while another one garnered praise for guaranteeing existing tenants a future, subsidized place to live.

Perhaps more exciting is future development for which the city laid the groundwork in 2021. Google submitted detailed plans for building 7,000 housing units in North Bayshore, which would transform the area north of 101 into an urban center with 15-story buildings. And the City Council voted in August to replace a downtown parking lot with 120 affordable housing units practically next door to City Hall.

City officials also began the groundwork for revising Mountain View's so-called "R3" zoning, a critical step towards changing the way multifamily housing looks in the city. The goal is to steer the direction of redevelopment towards more diverse housing types -- rather than just a long line of carbon-copy row houses -- and so far appears to allow higher densities that would increase housing production in the city.

Is Mountain View on the right track when it comes to housing, at least compared to its peers? The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury seems to think so, releasing a report last month that gave glowing praise to the city for its progress on meeting affordable housing needs. The report points out that Mountain View has built significantly more affordable units than Palo Alto since 2015, thanks to its zoning and planning process, as well as strong political willpower to build housing.

Staving off homelessness

It's been nearly three years since Santa Clara County documented a huge increase in homelessness in Mountain View, but 2021 brought the city's most significant response to the growing regional problem.

It started right away, too. In January 2021, city officials announced an early plan to convert Crestview Hotel into affordable housing for the homeless. It won swift approval from the City Council at one of its first meetings of the year, and got the ball rolling on hotel conversion plans.

Since then, the county has taken the lead on the majority of the work. Santa Clara County supervisors have since bought the hotel for $23 million and will operate the housing project once it's ready for occupancy. The city, for its part, will be paying for the conversion work.

While the approvals have been swift, the numerous public meetings have shown a divided community. A large contingent of residents, most of whom appear to hail from near the city's border with Sunnyvale, where Crestview is located, have come out in opposition, warning that homeless housing is an inappropriate use for the property. Among other things, they claim it's too close to schools, parks and children's playgrounds.

Some have repeatedly warned that the affordable housing could bring drug addicts and the mentally ill into the community, and demanded that there be a vigorous screening process to prevent that from happening.

But perhaps the crowning achievement this year in the homeless response has been LifeMoves Mountain View, a transitional housing project that creates a pipeline for the unhoused to stabilize and get the help they need to find permanent housing.

The 100-unit project only exists today because city staff and the nonprofit LifeMoves worked at breakneck speeds to apply for state funding under a tight deadline. What followed was an expeditious construction schedule using modular, prefabricated units that made it cheap and easy to build, and doors officially opened in May.

Many of the homeless people who make it into these units are from Mountain View, and some have made the full transition from living in a vehicle to securing a spot in permanent affordable housing somewhere in the city. Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the project in June and described it as a model for other cities across the state to emulate. Three months later, Santa Clara County supervisors announced plans to duplicate the project and drastically increase the number of transitional units to get people off the street.

However, Mountain View's homelessness response in 2021 also came with a crackdown on people living in vehicles on most city streets. Following the passage of Measure C last year, the city began enforcement of the so-called "narrow streets" ordinance, in which RVs and other oversized vehicles will be prohibited from parking on any street that is 40 feet wide or narrower.

Hundreds of vehicles -- the majority of them RVs -- have been used by homeless residents as makeshift shelters for years, and the ordinance was passed as a direct response to complaints from residents that public roadways were being used for habitation. Rather than take an aggressive approach to enforcement this year, the city took longer than expected to fabricate the "No Parking" signs and begin installation, which started in August.

The fate of the RV parking restrictions is still in limbo. In July, multiple legal advocacy groups sued the city claiming that the parking restrictions violated state and federal constitutional rights of the homeless, and amount to an attempt to oust the unhoused from the city. In November, a federal court judge declined to dismiss the case, which is now slated for a possible trial in December 2022.

So far, it doesn't appear that the parking restrictions are actually reducing the number of inhabited vehicles. While the city has been slow to release its own survey results, a community-led survey in November found hundreds of RVs still parked on city streets.

What's next in the pandemic response?

While many cities on the Peninsula struggled with budget cuts as a result of the pandemic -- and subsequently used federal stimulus money to bail themselves out -- Mountain View took a different strategy.

With close to $15 million flowing into city coffers from the American Rescue Plan Act, city officials proposed that the bulk of the cash go into social services that can help those in need, particularly those in debt or struggling to stay housed as a result of COVID-19. While some of that money is being spent in a traditional way, with $1 million funneled into the nonprofit CSA for direct financial assistance, some programs are a little more experimental.

In May, the City Council agreed to set aside $1 million to the Mountain View Solidarity Fund, a grassroots group deeply engaged with the city's Latino community. The hope is that the group will be able to work with hard-to-reach residents and families who are in dire financial straits.

The city is also using the federal aid as a chance to test the waters on a guaranteed basic income, an idea that has gained popularity in recent years as a way to stabilize lower-income residents barely scraping by. The idea, originally proposed by councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, is to provide families with monthly checks with no strings attached, giving them the autonomy to spend the money as they see fit.

Since then, the city has put together a concept in which $500 monthly payments will be given to families making up to 30% of the area's median income, or $49,700 for a family of four, as well as custodial caregivers with children under the age of 18. The city was originally supposed to adopt the guaranteed basic income program in November or December last year, but the date has since been pushed out to Feb. 22.

Comments

Johnny Yuma
Registered user
Blossom Valley
on Jan 5, 2022 at 3:22 pm
Johnny Yuma, Blossom Valley
Registered user
on Jan 5, 2022 at 3:22 pm

To the author of this article: stop referring to RV dwellers as “homeless.” Those RV vehicles ARE their homes. Many RV dwellers have jobs. They simply don’t make enough to rent an apartment in Mountain View.

Want to do something useful? Interview Mountain View RV dwellers and publish their perspective.


I can't breathe pollution
Registered user
Shoreline West
on Jan 13, 2022 at 8:11 am
I can't breathe pollution, Shoreline West
Registered user
on Jan 13, 2022 at 8:11 am

Dang mountain view, you guys are like psychos at this point. Everything you're doing is making your problems worse


LongResident
Registered user
another community
on Jan 16, 2022 at 11:31 pm
LongResident, another community
Registered user
on Jan 16, 2022 at 11:31 pm

Remote work could affect more than traffic! Will so much local housing be needed if Google employees work remote 2 days per week going forward? If a good number work from outside of HQ, i.e. fully remote, will the growth locally continue unabated? This pandemic may have yielded new behaviors which actually help other issues over the coming decades. Certainly there are still concerns for the lower income workers, not employed by Tech companies like Google, or those who are second class co-employees of the Googles of the valley. Google has a lot of unique plans for its opulent campuses of the future, but will the now be more neighbor-friendly? I think this may well be so.


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