Longtime community activist Lenny Siegel, who spearheaded the new group Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View, has announced that he will run for City Council this fall.
Siegel has the biggest name recognition among the field of 10 non-incumbents vying for three open seats on the council. He's been politically active in Mountain View since the 1970s, when he led two consecutive attempts to institute rent control in Mountain View. In recent decades he's led the charge in campaigns with wide support, including the successful effort to save Hangar One at Moffett Field and the community's push to clean up toxic TCE pollution left by early chip makers in Northeastern Mountain View as the director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight.
This year Siegel, 65, has been a force to be reckoned with at City Hall as founder of the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View, which aims to educate residents about the city's increasing imbalance between a high number of jobs and relatively few places for employees to live. Siegel says that since the 1970s, council members have been irresponsible in allowing large amounts of office and industrial development without zoning for adequate housing growth in the city, driving up competition and demand for a limited number of homes, and pushing workers into longer commutes. The city has zoned for fewer than 8,000 new homes by 2030, but office development for more than 35,000 new jobs in Mountain View is already on the horizon.
If sentiments expressed in recent council meetings are any indication, the campaign appears to have succeeded in shifting public opinion. Regular opposition to housing developments appears to have subsided, replaced with calls for more housing and concerns about intense office growth.
"It's harder for someone who only has three minutes at the podium to promote constructive alternatives," said Siegel, a downtown resident who says he has no "personal ambitions," just a desire to correct a problem that he says has reached "crisis stage" in Mountain View. It is easy to "get frustrated when things go to the council and you can't say anymore," he said.
Siegel ran for council three times, in 1976, 1980 and 1982, losing all three times, eventually getting appointed to Mountain View's environmental planning commission in the 1980s. "The first time I was an unknown with no experience and the next two times I was associated with rent control and landlords spent a lot of money trying to defeat me," Siegel said.
Now, given the feedback he's received, "I'm convinced that I'm electable," he said. "The issues I've been working on for the last 20 years are issues which have majority or consensus support. And I'm a lot older maybe that makes me less threatening to people," he said with a laugh.
Siegel attended Stanford during the 1960s, where he was a prominent figure in the anti-war movement as a member of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society. Siegel has anti-war posters from the era framed in his office, and helped organize the group "Voices for Peace," which held anti-war rallies in Mountain View during the Iraq war. Siegel was labeled a "militant" during the rent control fights of the 1970s, a label he embraced in a recent interview. Nevertheless, he's gained the respect of a wide range of people over many years, including many members of the military and government officials involved in toxic cleanup at Moffett Field.
Siegel has yet to organize an election campaign but he says housing and development issues would be his top priority. He advocated for substantial new housing and limited office growth in the San Antonio shopping center area and in North Bayshore near Google headquarters, but not with high-rise buildings. He's repeatedly called for "family friendly" development with new schools and transportation connections. He says downtown residents will probably need a permanent parking permit program soon, and doesn't agree with people who say Castro Street should be closed to car traffic, as it's too important a traffic artery.
He says he still believes in rent control, but has chosen not to focus his energy fighting that battle given how much money landlords have to fight it. He says he is "generally pro labor" but also supports having rainy day funds in the city budget.
"I would see my campaign and my service as a way of bringing renters in Mountain View into the political process without sacrificing the concerns of longtime homeowners," said Siegel, who is a homeowner himself.
When it comes to raising money for his campaign, Siegel says he isn't totally opposed to taking money from real estate interests. He mentioned that Prometheus Real Estate Group, the large Mountain View landlord and apartment developer, recently attended a Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View meeting.
"Google supports some of things I'm doing," Siegel said. "It may be some people who support some of what I'm saying will give me money, but my principles are pretty clear. I'm not expecting much from business sources. I'm expecting support from Google employees. Google does some good things in the community but it's also the source of our problems, so I don't know how the official corporate management will view my candidacy. They are saving Hangar One, so they do some good things."
Siegel said he isn't compromising in his opposition to the city's jobs-rich, housing-poor development pattern. In the past he's criticized that pattern as the "fiscalization" of land-use planning. Housing is seen by officials as a drain on a city's budget, while job growth is seen as a boon. Siegel has said the result of that pattern is an "environmental and social disaster."
"These are issues which require somebody to stick their neck out, that's what I'm known for doing," Siegel said. "When council members talk about the jobs-housing balance being a regional problem, what they seem to be saying is other cities should be solving the problem. With Mountain View as ground zero with Google, it needs to take the lead. I'm hoping that Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Cupertino will adopt similar policies. There are active groups in some of those cities that haven't framed the issue the way we have around balance."
Siegel says two other candidates have been attending meetings for the Campaign for Balanced Mountain View: Greg Unangst and Ken Rosenberg.
"I'm expecting that by the time the election rolls around all the candidates will say they want to do something about the jobs-housing imbalance, but most of them have not been outspoken and clear on the issues that the Campaign for Balanced Mountain View has been raising," Siegel said. "I'm hoping that my candidacy will force other people to take firmer stands."