Reluctantly but unanimously, the City Council at its March 26 meeting approved a 33-unit rowhouse development at 1950 Montecito Ave., describing it as the kind of project that should be restricted in the future. Everyone agreed that the Montecito Avenue project followed the letter of Mountain View's zoning and building codes, although many in attendance argued that it violated the spirit of the city's housing vision.
"I can't vote no on the project when it's fully compliant and when we're the ones responsible for setting the rules and regulations in the first place," said Councilman Lucas Ramirez. "We have to identify a policy solution to mitigate this impact."
Like a slow-moving train wreck, a number of housing projects to redevelop older apartments occupied by low-income families are arriving before the City Council, leaving no time to hit the brakes. These projects have been in the city's review pipeline for more than a year, but city officials have failed to address the disconnect between the policies on the books and their stated ideals for keeping Mountain View a diverse community.
Since last summer, local resident Jacqueline Cashen has been regularly warning city officials that these projects were imminent, urging them to take action. Next week, a project at the 59-unit apartment complex where she lives will go before the council seeking permission to replace the rentals with 54 rowhouses.
"Mountain View calls itself a sanctuary city, but to whom does that apply? Mountain View calls itself a human rights city, but to whom does that apply?" Cashen said. "Approving these projects will continue to drive out everyone but the wealthy."
It is an unpleasant dilemma that is becoming all too familiar. In December, council members grudgingly approved plans at 2005 Rock St. to demolish 20 affordable apartments and build 15 rowhouses, which are expected to sell for $1.3 million apiece. At the time, council members said they had little alternative in the matter, and they focused their discussion on trying to secure an aid package for the displaced residents.
It was pretty much the same situation at the Tuesday meeting on the Montecito Avenue project. A long line of residents, neighbors and housing advocates urged the City Council to staunch the loss of affordable housing. Elected leaders expressed their sympathies, but said they couldn't do much.
"Cities can't move that fast. Give us the benefit of the doubt that we're trying to solve this. It's a complex problems and it's going to take a while," said Councilman John McAlister. "After a number of these redevelopment, we're seeing the flaws and ways we can improve."
By Mountain View's standards, the Montecito apartments were relatively affordable, costing an average of about $2,800 a month for a two-bedroom unit. Several tenants said they could not find housing at similar prices anywhere in the surrounding cities. About one-third of the households are expected to qualify for some kind of relocation payment.
In his brief presentation, Josh Vrotsos of Dividend Homes emphasized that his project was fully compliant with city zoning requirements. He described the redevelopment as a direct result of the city's 2016 rent control law.
Like past discussions, the council tried to push the developer to do more for displaced residents, but they didn't have much leverage to make demands. Councilwoman Ellen Kamei asked for Dividend Homes to provide more families with relocation benefits and other assistance. Vrotos did not commit to any additional aid, although he agreed to make it easier for tenants to access their relocation payment earlier.
Approving the project was described as the best outcome for a lousy situation. Rejecting the project would mean the property owner could move forward with evicting all the tenants, forcing them to leave without any relocation benefits, said Councilman Chris Clark.
"It's not a great set of solutions, but unfortunately we need to fundamentally change the rules so we're not in this situation moving forward," he said.
For all the talk of the city's hands being tied, tenant advocates have asserted that city leaders do have the power to deny such projects. During the December discussion on the 2005 Rock St. project, attorneys with nonprofit Community Law Services of East Palo Alto urged the council to reject the development on the grounds that it would harm the public welfare and the city housing goals. California courts have long upheld the power of cities to reject projects, especially when a denial is in the public interest, they argued.
City officials say the better solution is to change city policy. Since last year, City Council members have mentioned bringing forward a new housing ordinance that would restrict developments that cause a loss of housing. But this idea has not been pursued with any sense of urgency. This policy is currently included as one potential item in the city's goal-setting list for the upcoming fiscal year.
In all likelihood, the Montecito Avenue apartments will be vacant by the time the council begins looking at any policy update. The tenants of all 33 units are expected to leave by the end of August, according to the developer.
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