On April 14 an article on TechCrunch.com went viral, linking the jobs-rich and housing-poor growth pattern seen in Mountain View and other Bay Area cities to the gentrification of San Francisco. It was titled "How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF's Housing Crisis Explained)" — referring to how Mountain View City Council members refused to build housing in North Bayshore for Google employees two years ago, citing potential impacts to the rare burrowing owl — and how a protester drew attention to the situation by vomiting on the windshield of a Google employee shuttle.
Mountain View — as the article points out while citing the Voice's reporting — is on track to develop space for more than 42,000 tech jobs in the coming years, and only a few thousand new homes. Writer Kim-Mai Cutler blames a striking lack of housing for Valley employees on the "NIMBY" culture (not in my backyard) among politically powerful homeowner organizations who have blocked housing development in cities such as Mountain View and Palo Alto. She calls on Peninsula homeowners to "stop sitting in the background while the city's workers, the poor, the elderly and its young duke it out in this ugly charade. While there are some tech workers who do strike it rich, most just have salaries and would love to raise families in the Bay Area just as you did when you came here years ago. The Bay Area risks becoming a victim of its own success if it can't make more room (for homes). At this point, blocking individual housing developments to protect your views is tantamount to generational theft."
While the Mountain View City Council is catching flak for its refusal to allow for housing to be built for Google workers, there was an observable shift in the public discussion of the issue at last week's Environmental Planning Commission meeting. The commission voted unanimously to come up with a set of indicators to track the city's housing-jobs imbalance, and to conduct another nexus study in order to raise housing impact fees on commercial and residential development.
Instead of the usual protests of housing development and its impacts on traffic and parking, at the commission meeting there were many pleas from residents for the city to do something about skyrocketing rents, which affect a majority of the city's residents, as does commuter traffic from exploding job growth. The comments came as commissioners considered a new housing element for the city, a document that serves as a blueprint for meeting the city's housing needs from 2015 to 2022.
Bubb elementary school PTA member Ravit Ortiz detailed the effects on her daughter's first grade class at Bubb.
"There are two families whose children are sleeping on the floor just to be part of our school system, which really just isn't acceptable," Ortiz said. "We are losing two nurses at El Camino hospital (parents of kids at Bubb) who will be leaving because at the end of the school year they will not be able to afford to live here. Our teacher is going to be leaving as well due to the commute and because there is no housing that is available for teachers or police officers or people who give to the community."
"I wish there was more mindfulness" about this issue, Ortiz said. "I really appreciate you guys trying to figure this out because it's a big mess."
Ortiz added, "We just lost our neighbors because their rent went up by $1,000. I don't know how that's legal."
The affects of the housing crisis on the middle class are significant, residents say. Ortiz told the Voice that she and her Google-employed husband were also considering leaving the city because of housing costs. John Scarborough, a 12-year resident, told the commission, "I'm one of the lucky ones who makes a fairly good salary but it's not enough to buy a house here. We need to do something. It's a question of sustainability."
While California homeowners have long had Proposition 13's protections against the rising cost of property taxes, renters have yet to benefit from any policy to stabilize their rents, either state-wide or in Mountain View, where they make up a majority of the population.
"Prop. 13 gave stability to home owners; we need to provide stability to renters," said Edie Keating, reading a list of comments from residents surveyed at a local Unitarian church.
Shifting public sentiment
Commissioner Kathy Trontell noted the shift in the public sentiment compared to the last time the city discussed a new housing element in 2006, when council members cried foul that they were given an F grade for not meeting the city's "Regional Housing Needs Allocation" — a number set by the Association of Bay Area Governments that must be met in every Peninsula city's housing element. The city was asked — not required — to approve zoning to potentially allow the construction of at least 3,423 housing units between 1999 and 2006 — but only 1,267 received permits.
"There was time not that long ago when folks believed we needed to argue against the ABAG numbers," Trontell said. "There's been such a change that reality has caught up to us."
People aren't complaining this time that "'no one can tell us how densely we can build our community to.' We have a terrible imbalance in our community. ABAG is not the point. It's about what do we do to make it feasible to maintain the diversity and the vitality that we have in our community."
Given the number of new jobs anticipated for the city, ABAG's "regional housing needs allocation" for Mountain View was underwhelming this time around. Mountain View is being asked to allow the construction of 2,926 homes in the next seven years for residents of various income levels, including 819 homes for very low income households, 492 for low income households and 527 for moderate income households.
EPC chair Robert Cox agreed with the sentiment expressed by most at the EPC meeting, saying, "This is the key issue that we have that we're facing here in the city of Mountain View."
"We have a crisis on our hands and we need to move as quickly as we can," said Commissioner Todd Fernandez.
Cox noted day worker center co-founder Job Lopez's remarks that it would be more meaningful if the commission were called the "environmental planning and social justice commission."
"As Mr. Lopez said, social justice is important," Cox said. "Even our biggest employer has said they aren't here to do any evil. So they can be part of the solution, too."
EPC member Lisa Matichak, who is now also running for City Council, raised a common criticism about the city's jobs-housing imbalance that has been raised many times in the past — "(It's) a regional issue, it's not a city by city issue. I think it's kind of unrealistic to come up with a goal there."
Resident Aldona Marjorek disagreed, saying "I still don't understand how we can have such an imbalance. I don't think it's fair to the whole Bay Area community."
At the EPC meeting, residents called for the city to up its efforts to build subsidized housing for the service industry employees. It's said that between two and five such employees are created for every office tech job, depending on which expert you ask.
To that end, residents said they wanted higher housing impact fees charged to apartment developers who are likely making a big profit on rents as high as $8,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, as seen at Mountain View's new Madera complex. Such fees go towards subsidized housing units for low income families. The city is now asking only 4.6 percent of a proposed apartment project's value go towards such fees to pay for subsidized housing, which is "really behind the times" compared to other cities, said Dona Yobbs of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
"The only way you make housing affordable to people earning under $50,000 a year is by subsidizing it," said Kevin Zwick, CEO of the Housing Trust Silicon Valley, in an interview with Seth Shostak for the online talk show "Silicon Valley Buzz" on April 2, in which Palo Alto council member Liz Kniss and Mountain View council member John Inks also discussed the housing crisis.
"In the last year, Silicon Valley created about 42,000 new jobs but we only permitted 7,500 housing units for all income levels. And that's been going on for 20 to 30 years and that's what's creating the unaffordability," Zwick said.
Lenny Siegel, the leader of the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View, was skeptical of the housing element, and not just because it says Mountain View had only 47,800 jobs in 2010. According the Employment Development department and previous reports from city staff, the number is now closer to 68,000, while the city has about 34,000 homes. "You can't solve a problem if your data is way off." he said in an email.
"The programs in the housing element are going to be washed away in a tsunami of new employment unless we do a better job of putting our jobs and housing into balance," Siegel said at the EPC meeting.
While some would like to see the city's 2:1 ratio of jobs to homes come down to a 1:1 ratio, "I'm not that optimistic," Siegel said. " I'd just like to see the city adopt a ratio, say from 2010 or 2011," and make it a goal of not going beyond it.
"Mountain View needs to set a goal to prevent our jobs-housing balance from getting worse, and if we don't, more people will be driven out of town, more (adults) will be living with their parents and more kids will be sleeping on the floor," Siegel said.
Siegel says the city should actually track its ratio of jobs to employed residents, rather than jobs to homes, because many homes could be taken by seniors who don't work. Though that indicator may ignore the fact that many homes are also now filled with multiple employees and even multiple families. City staff said they would propose several "indicators" to help track the problem.
"Things are getting very bad and they are going to get a whole lot worse," Siegel said. "We're going to lose the diversity so many of our residents value."