In an event at the Adobe building Monday night, Mountain View residents spoke about their struggles to find housing and afford rising rents before an expert provided some perspective on the recurring housing shortage in the area.
Egon Terplan of SPUR, a San Jose- and San Francisco-based urban planning think tank, was invited by a coalition of groups concerned with Mountain View's housing crisis. "He is not parachuting in from San Francisco to tell us what to do and how to think," said Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain, one of the sponsors.
Other sponsors included the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning, Peninsula Interfaith Action and the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View. Though focused on land use, the event was titled "The Google Bus / Mountain View connection -- Housing Affordability and Transit."
In a city where just over 60 percent of residents are renters facing continual rent increases, emotions at the meeting ran high.
Wendee Crofoot, a community activist and resident for 20 years, said her rent went up $100 recently. "I have a feeling it's going to go up by about $300. This is terrifying and I'm not sure where I'll go," she said.
"A lot of my friends and colleagues have been taken aback by this issue," said a younger Google employee named Jeremy, who says he shares his apartment with his Google-employed girlfriend. "It never occurred to me that people couldn't live near their work. I don't want Mountain View to become a place where only dual Google incomes can afford to live."
"I hope to raise a family here someday, but it is hard to put down roots when everything is so uncertain and there is all this office space increasing with no housing to back it up," he said.
In the next decade the city plans to authorize millions of square feet of new office space to house thousands of jobs, but zoning allows for only a few thousand homes.
A single mother named Anna said she's concerned that rent hikes will soon force her out of Mountain View after 15 years. She said she works every day and to pay higher rents, "I would need to look for another job but in reality I can't do that because I need to watch over my kids."
One of her children has special needs, she said. "She's really close to her school here, her teachers, her psychologist, and she's been talking to her about this issue. It would be really detrimental for her to start from scratch."
Marylin Signa, a resident of the Moffett mobile home park, said "We're starting to wonder is if this town is going to be a place for all people or just the most wealthy. We don't necessarily want to be downsized and stuffed into shoebox-sized housing either."
Why is it becoming so expensive?
As for why Mountain View is becoming so expensive, "the main answer is we don't build enough (housing), Terplan said, adding that it should be no surprise that prices are growing rapidly given the number of people wanting to move to Mountain View and the Bay Area. And it isn't because there is a lack of interest from developers. Terplan pointed the finger at regulations and restrictions. For example, he said people in San Francisco have become "experts" at restricting housing supply, with voters and residents often taking political action against housing development, and the city of 825,000 has never built more than 2,000 homes a year despite explosive tech job growth.
Terplan said the Bay Area saw a huge amount of housing development between 1950 and 1980. Projected to grow from 7 million to 9 million people by 2030, Terplan said the Bay Area is undergoing a transformation that hasn't been seen since World War II, after which housing was built as if the American Dream depended on it, and it did.
Terplan said that people in San Francisco still argue that increasing housing supply will not lower prices. "That's still a debate in San Francisco. People will get up and say, 'I'm not sure there's a relationship,'" he said.
Terplan presented a chart which shows that the most expensive communities in the U.S. added relatively little housing since 1990. The worst offenders were the metro areas of San Francisco, San Jose, Honolulu, Orange County, Oakland and New York, in that order. Those metro areas, regions that extend past city limits, saw fewer than 10 homes built every year per 1,000 existing homes, since 1990. And prices were the highest at more than $300 per square foot.
The places with the cheapest and most plentiful new housing built since 1990 are Las Vegas followed by Raleigh, North Carolina, then Atlanta and Phoenix, in that order. Homes in those cities cost less than $150 per square foot and since 1990, those metro areas saw greater housing development: between 30 and 72 homes built per 1000 existing homes.
"No metro that builds a lot of housing is expensive," writes Jed Kolko, the chief economist at the real estate website Trulia, which originally posted the graph. He concludes that it will take many years of significant housing growth to change housing prices in the most expensive cities.
In recent years, some Bay Area cities have been better at meeting housing demand and Terplan pointed to Dublin -- called an "urban suburb" by its mayor -- and San Jose as examples of places allowing the most housing to be built.
There are also solutions on a smaller scale. In San Francisco, there have been a few developments that have attempted to make housing more affordable by leaving out parking and creating smaller units with shared living room areas to reduce construction costs in a city where they are eye-popping -- $469,000 to build an 800-square-foot unit in a 100-unit building, Terplan said.
After Terplan's talk, the merits of rent control were raised by resident Edie Keating.
"That balance is not going to be restored right away," she said of the area's housing shortage. "The problem isn't which city you fall in love with. It's that you think you can afford a place, then the rents go up and you can't afford it. I see rent control as providing that stability."
She said she didn't know why anyone would oppose rent control under the 1996 Costa Hawkins Act, a state law which has sharply weakened rent control laws by allowing landlords -- through "vacancy decontrol" -- to raise rents as high as they'd like when tenants move out. "Especially with vacancy decontrol, I don't see the problem," Keating said.
The Costa Hawkins Act also makes all housing units built after February 1, 1995 exempt from rent control. She said the law needed to be reformed.
Terplan said there were no well organized groups working to expand renters rights on the state level.
"The coalitions that care most about rent control, they want to preserve what they have without (changing) any of it," Terplan said. "A new coalition needs to be formed among cities willing to go to Sacramento."
City's new housing
As emotions ran high at the meeting, City Council member Ronit Bryant nearly lost her temper at one point. She was starting to tell attendees how they could be involved in developing three "precise plans" -- road maps for development along El Camino Real, in and around San Antonio shopping center and the North Bayshore area north of Highway 101. North Bayshore is the only precise plan area where new residential zoning is not proposed, as Bryant and three other council members voted against it in 2012.
"Why no housing in North Bayshore?" shouted Doug Delong of Advocates for Affordable Housing as Bryant began speaking.
"I'll be really, really happy to talk about it some more," said Bryant, raising her voice for a few seconds. "I am really, really tired, quite frankly, I don't usually let my temper get away from me, but to think that the 1,100 units that the businesses in North Bayshore and the city were interested in putting in North Bayshore -- that that would have resolved the problems of the Bay Area, really makes absolutely no sense."
"We are putting a lot of housing on El Camino Real," Bryant said. "We have hundreds of units coming in on El Camino."
Earlier in the meeting, Terplan pointed out that the city saw only 37 new homes actually built in 2013, though that doesn't capture the full picture. According to a chart the Voice received from Mountain View planning director Randy Tsuda, Mountain View has approved more than 2,300 housing units since 2009, while about 600 of those units have been part of projects that have been abandoned by developers. This year the city also identified areas where zoning could allow 2,926 more homes to be built by 2023.
It still appears that the approved housing stock will be far less than what is needed to accommodate the city's explosive development of office buildings over 6 million square feet is either being built, proposed or expected to be developed under new zoning -- potentially bringing over 35,000 jobs to Mountain View by 2030. Mountain View had about 35,000 homes in 2009 and now has nearly 70,000 jobs.
At one point, candidates for City Council were asked to stand, and Greg Unangst, Lisa Matichak, Pat Showalter, Ken Rosenberg, Jim Neal and Margaret Capriles all stood up. Someone demanded that each one say whether they supported rent control, but none of the candidates stated a position.
Resident Patrick Moore urged people to attend City Council meetings and and counter the opposition to housing projects that is commonplace. As Terplan noted, opponents usually have similar concerns in all Bay Area cities: traffic and parking impacts, fears about lowered property values, a desire to preserve the character of the neighborhood and fears about inviting gentrification to the neighborhood. Terplan said housing projects are regularly being trimmed back all over the Bay Area to please such residents, and the small losses add up.
"I have never seen a room filled as much as this with speakers advocating higher-density housing," Moore said of what he'd observed in City Council meetings. When housing projects are scaled back in Mountain View "it's a case of five units here, 10 units there. Pretty soon you are talking about real numbers."
Resident Konrad Sosnow suggested that the city identify how much housing it could reasonably build and not allow office growth that creates a jobs-housing ratio of more than two jobs to every home, which is about what the city has now. He acknowledged that a compromise could be made with residents who wanted the ratio closer to 1:1. Terplan cautioned against a moratorium on office development, saying it could "backfire."
A woman whose comments received a lot of applause said her family of five was facing eviction. Speaking through a translator, she said she could not find a new two-bedroom apartment in Mountain View because landlords were requiring that she prove that her family earned three times their rent per month, equal to about $6,000 a month for her, she said. "Why do I have to prove to the landlord that I can pay $6,000 when I know I can pay my rent?" she asked. "It is unfair."
She said landlords were now evicting households who have to squeeze more than two people in a bedroom. "I know it is the law that there can only be two people per room but they didn't enforce it before. Now they are trying to suffocate us," she said.
"For me it was surprising to read in the newspaper about a family that worked at Google actually complaining about the rents," she said, referring to a recent story in the Voice. "Can you imagine then how we live? We don't live, we survive, every day."
"I don't know what we are going to do," she said. "What is happening here is inhumane."
She added that she could not comprehend how her family is being pushed out of the city but will then be asked to come back to clean homes and do the gardening and cooking for those who are able to stay.
She thanked the white people who came to the event, and congratulated the Google employee who spoke, saying it was evidence that he had "a big heart."
"Often when our community speaks up we are not heard," she said. "Together with your voice we can actually make an impact."