With the potential to more than double the city's affordable housing stock, Mountain View's goal to transform North Bayshore into a new residential neighborhood would be a game-changer for Silicon Valley's housing crunch.
But Mountain View faces a true dilemma as it fine-tunes its master plan for building about 10,000 new apartments in the tech campus that's home to Google. Could the city's road map ultimately be completely ignored?
That fear played a predominant role in Tuesday night's discussion as City Council members attempted to strike the right balance between extracting hefty affordable-housing concessions from private developers without going too far and causing developers to walk away. Underpinning the talks, council members repeatedly acknowledged that their vision depends on satisfying just one big player -- Google, which owns most of North Bayshore. The tech giant was conspicuously absent from the meeting.
For months, city officials have said 20 percent of the new housing of the densest new apartments built in the area should be affordable units. But at the meeting, many speakers encouraged city leaders to go much further.
"You should set a goal of building 30 percent affordable housing for North Bayshore," suggested Bob Emmett, speaking for the service-workers group Silicon Valley Rising. "Our workers do not earn enough to be able to afford the rising cost of housing locally, even with two workers in a household."
Emmett was just one in a line of speakers who argued that Mountain View should seek more from one of the world's wealthiest companies. That idea of maximizing affordable housing gained some support on the council. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, who previously opposed residential growth in North Bayshore, became the night's leading advocate for demanding more below-market units. At minimum, she said the city should seek 25 percent affordable units.
"Can we be a little more creative and ambitious here and really answer to the needs of our area?" Abe-Koga said. "Maybe it's time to look at inclusionary zoning policies and higher percentages because I see there's a way to get more (below-market) units."
But the idea spurred nervousness among other council members. Mayor Rosenberg warned the city could hear a chorus of "crickets" if the rules went too far. Other council members pointed to San Francisco, where onerous affordable housing rules can serve as a convenient pretext to sink new housing projects. The 20 percent level ended up remaining in place.
Of that 20 percent, the new subsidized units would be split between those affordable to people with very low, low, and moderate incomes. As an incentive to encourage for-sale housing, city officials agreed to allow developers to instead set aside as much as 5 percent of their affordable housing obligation for market-rate ownership units.
The council took a series of straw votes on small changes to affordable housing guidelines, tweaking the density bonuses, the mix of pricing for various income levels and the length of time that any new housing would have to remain subsidized.
Councilmembers John McAlister and Lenny Siegel both urged city staff to figure out a way to make new office space contingent on developers building new housing. Council members also expressed support for allowing developers to dedicate land instead of building affordable-housing units -- an idea that staff suggested could result in more housing being built.
"If we end up building these 9,800 units in North Bayshore, we'll end up with more low-income housing than we've ever built in Mountain View," Siegel said. "No matter what we do, we're able here to serve a lot of people."
Google officials sent a letter to the city in advance of the council meeting, but the company commented only on the length of time they would be required to keep new housing affordable. City staff had proposed a percentage of new housing in North Bayshore should be kept at below-market rates in perpetuity.
John Igoe, Google's real estate director, suggested a term of 55 years, saying that was consistent with state law. He warned that prolonging this obligation would put a burden on the usage, financing and transferability of property. Discussing these concerns, council members indicated they were willing to negotiate.
Closing the talks, the council touched on one of the biggest housing questions of all -- Who should get to live in these new apartments? Among the ideas proposed, elected leaders suggested limiting it to North Bayshore employees or possibly those working within a 3-mile radius. But city staff warned this could create a legal quagmire.
Without making any final decisions, council members suggested that people who work or currently live in Mountain View should get priority.