The city of Mountain View is on pace to destroy 127 of its rent-controlled, mostly affordable apartments every year, threatening to push out low and middle-income families unable to pay the high cost of today's rent.
With many units already torn down and more than 1,000 still on the chopping block, Mountain View City Council members resolved Tuesday night to do whatever it takes to keep some of those displaced residents in the city, backing a suite of options ranging from affordable housing preferences to buying and managing apartment complexes as a public asset.
The Oct. 29 study session was a long time coming. Over the last year, the City Council has reluctantly approved multiple projects that involve demolishing apartment complexes to build rowhouses. Developers complied with all of the city's zoning requirements, giving the council few options for preventing the loss of older apartments.
"We're not just facing an affordable housing crisis with displacement as a footnote," said Councilwoman Alison Hicks. "I think displacement should be put front and center."
For every high-paying tech job being added in the area, there's an almost equal number of low and middle-income jobs as well, Hicks said. The city needs to be able to address the housing needs of those workers and not force them to move somewhere requiring a mega-commute.
Mountain View has about 20,000 rental units, about three-fourths of which are older and covered by the city's rent control law. Many of the ones that have been torn down -- or are on track to being demolished -- are smaller complexes averaging 32 units, according to a city staff report. In all 32 past and current redevelopment applications since 2012, the property was sold to a developer.
Council members unanimously agreed to explore a half-dozen ways to keep some of those residents in town, some of which would involve a major investment. Ideas put forth by the city's housing staff include buying apartment complexes that could be rehabilitated, redeveloped into affordable housing or simply "preserved" to house existing tenants. City staff estimate it would need to find subsidies on the order of $125,000 to $250,000 per unit to make such a program work.
The expensive proposition would give the city broad discretion over who to house, either temporarily or permanently, which could help keep the city's workforce from having to move out of the area, said Councilman John McAlister. The steep initial price notwithstanding, he said the city has control over the rental costs and can collect rental income to make sure it's sustainable over time.
Other suggestions called for a "no net loss" policy, meaning any proposal to tear down homes must include construction of at least the same number of new units. The city could also partner with landlords to establish a "reserve" of vacant rental units in Mountain View that could temporarily or even permanently house tenants who are displaced by new construction.
City staff confirmed Tuesday that cities also have broad discretion to give preference to displaced tenants applying to get into the limited affordable or below-market-rate housing being built in the city, which are typically subject to high demand and long waiting lists.
Some aspects of the displacement strategy remain murky, particularly with a whole new suite of recently approved statewide housing and renter protection bills. One bill in particular, SB 330, opens the door for Mountain View to impose so-called recontrol requirements on housing projects that tear down old rent-controlled units. City staff say that, at first glance, it appears the city can make the newly built units subject to the city's rent control law.
It's unclear whether tenants kicked out during construction could return to the newly built housing with the same monthly rent, or whether landlords can use it as an opportunity to reset the lease to market rate, said Wayne Chen, Mountain View's assistant community development director. The bill was signed into law only a few weeks ago, and city staff is still analyzing the intent.
"Everyone's just trying to figure out what it all means because it is so new," he said.
Whisman Station resident Bruce England, a member of the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning, said his group strongly supports the city's approach to displacement, but that the council shouldn't lose sight of the root cause -- the dearth of housing being built in the Bay Area.
"What's needed is more housing," he said. "The displacement is something that needs to be addressed, but ultimately we need more housing."
Mitch Mankin, a representative for the housing advocacy group SV@Home, said stemming the tide of displacement is a complex and multifaceted issue that needs the full menu of ideas put forth by city staff in order to succeed. Giving tenants the first right to return to the apartment complex, for example, only works if they have a place to stay during construction.
"People don't have a place to go when their homes have been demolished. Prices are rising too fast," he said.
City staff expect to come back with a more formal displacement strategy for approval in the spring.