Housing, less and more

Housing issues are always at the top of the list.

Council reviewed many options for a Safe Parking Program on February 23, looking for ways to provide parking for cars and RVs that are serving as homes. It won’t be easy, but a good to-do list of common-sense items emerged. Provision of liability coverage would make it easier for churches to step up, for example. Councilmembers followed up with HUD when five of them went to Washington, D.C. in March for information and outreach.

The next agenda item was a presentation of Santa Clara County’s Community Plan to End Homelessness, and passage of several affiliated resolutions.

“Soft rent control”?

We still don’t know what will happen with the months-long attempt to create a rental housing dispute resolution program. On March 15, the results of prior meetings came back to Council as a framework for an ordinance. The proposal covers a defined list of disputes–including rent increases of over 7.2%/year, an arbitrary number that Council selected–allows either tenant or landlord to initiate professional dispute resolution within given time limits, and involves increasingly complex discussion only if it is needed. If a professional dispute resolution specialist cannot initially effect “conciliation”, the next stage is a mediation session (with mandatory attendance), and if that doesn’t effect a resolution, there could be binding or non-binding arbitration.

Supporters of binding arbitration emphasized that it is almost never used, but must be there to incentivize earlier-stage resolution. An arbitrator, if it comes to that, is required to take into account landlords’ documented maintenance expenses (including a new roof), which can generally be passed on to tenants. This allows owners a reasonable rate of return. Binding arbitration for units newer than early 1995 is generally disallowed by the Costa-Hawkins Act.  The program would be paid for by a very small per-unit fee assessed on landlords.

Rental property owners and managers took advantage of the 90 seconds allowed for each comment (a measure of how many speakers there were) to predict dire consequences for tenants, owners, and the state of the city. Tenants requested protection against arbitrary evictions and other retaliation, a tenant-landlord commission, and a temporary moratorium on rent increases.

Enough Councilmembers accepted some version of the claim that “this is rent control and therefore bad” to defeat the binding arbitration provision, opting instead for an ordinance that would have non-binding arbitration and be reviewed informally in six months and formally two or three years after that. The eventual motion passed 4-3. A second reading was set for March 22, but a Councilmember who had voted for the ordinance was absent on March 22, and after serious discussion of the possible outcome, Council voted to postpone the second reading to the next regular meeting, April 26, over a month later.

Since there was no move toward “tenant protection”, the possibility of sparse use of this program (if passed) remains, resulting in little data for Council to evaluate later.

Readers interested in more in-depth information about the proposal should look at the very lucid staff report for agenda item 7.1 on the March 15 Council agenda: point your mouse at http://www.mountainview.gov/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=18958

Much more housing coming (for whom?)

Meanwhile, the effort to build a lot more housing in the city continues unabated.

The Sobrato Organization has made extensive modifications to a project proposal for the east end of Pear Avenue in North Bayshore, presenting to a Council study session on March 1 a plan with reduced square footage for offices and more for housing. An appreciable amount of affordable housing (exact affordability level TBD) would be built by default on a parcel next to the market-rate housing, but several Councilmembers spoke up in favor of at least some inclusionary zoning (having the affordable units integrated into the other buildings, as is done for all other apartment developments in town). There was also some support for unbundling parking.

On this occasion, and in the formal Council meeting that followed, it became clear that Santiago Villa (mobile home park) residents, who would be next door to the Sobrato project, are under a lot of stress due to increases in their space rents (especially for new residents) and threatening-sounding communications from the park ownership. Those who want to sell their units are sometimes unable to because prospective new owners are daunted by the space rent, and some claimed that their only recourse was to sell to the park owner, increasing his control of the land. Ultimately, the mayor made an unscheduled statement that there is no plan to rezone the area, and Council directed City Staff to look into allegations of inappropriate treatment of these residents. Sobrato was also urged to establish good communication with the Santiago Villa residents, currently the only residents of North Bayshore.

A more common type of affordable housing project, at 779 E. Evelyn (next to Bernardo, on the border with Sunnyvale), received unanimous support later in the same Council meeting. ROEM will build 116 units affordable to households with up to 60% of Area Median Income: mostly one or two bedrooms, but some studios and three-bedroom units.

In another study session toward the end of this meeting, Council discussed and gave Staff direction on the in-progress modification of the North Bayshore Precise Plan, to allow it to include residential uses. There could ultimately be up to 10,250 new units there. Staff’s action list includes an economic study to determine what minimum percentage requirement for affordable housing would be reasonable, in return for higher densities; providing more information on unbundling parking, on onstreet parking, and on what they mean by the “expedited process” that they suggested as an incentive. A majority of the Council also supported adding dual plumbing (for clear water and greywater) to building requirements there.

Several of these Council discussions included comments that new housing is being built only for people with high incomes or low incomes—nothing for those in the middle. This is definitely not a new trend but it is becoming increasingly noticeable.

The newest Precise Plan

Council approved the East Whisman Precise Plan Scope of Work on March 22. The main decision to be made was whether to accept VTA’s recent request to include their former Park-and-Ride lot (across Evelyn from where there used to be a Light Rail station) in the plan area. It is not contiguous to other land in the planning area. Council rejected the idea 5-1-1.

Next, what about parking?

On March 22, Council voted 6-0-1 to have a .45 parking ratio at the Palo Alto Housing Corporation affordable complex (about 60 units) being built at El Camino Real and Rich. This figure was supported by data on previous similar developments.

Several years ago, Council decided there should be a Residential Parking Permit Program established for which any neighborhood in the city could apply, to mitigate impacts of spillover parking from nearby non-residential activity. This would work by establishing duration limits on curbside parking for non-permit-holders in the approved area. On February 23, Public Works staff brought a proposal to a Council study session, with Old Mountain View (which includes the commercial downtown and abuts the Transit Center) as the basis for examples of how the process could work. They outlined program funding possibilities, criteria for establishment of such a permit parking zone, and how it could be approved, implemented, and enforced. Based on the staff report, residents (mostly from Old Mountain View) provided systematic feedback on what aspects of the proposal they felt would and would not fit well with local needs, street layout, and housing types. Council asked Staff to work on modifications to the proposal, and Staff agreed to do so. The staff report projected an ordinance in May.

Or not parking…

There will be a substantial (commercial) development impact fee for North Bayshore projects, aimed at transportation improvements. Council selected amounts for office, retail, and hotel uses that added up to no more than a total that was justified by a nexus study.

An increasing number of North Bayshore workers are anticipated to get there by means other than cars, regardless of North Bayshore housing construction. Many of them will pass through the Downtown Transit Center. Exactly how connections will work will be studied in Phase II of a Transit Center Master Plan project. Phase I, to be completed first, recently had its first community meeting, and then a Council study session on March 22. The topic was an old and popular one: how to get to a grade separation of the train tracks and everything else, and should that involve closing Castro Street just south of the tracks?

Everyone agreed that this would be the least stressful alternative, with distinct advantages over depressing Castro to go under the tracks (including major impacts to businesses on the 100 block, during and after construction), but that there are many details to be worked out. Another alternative that consultants had suggested involved a pedestrian plaza in the area, which was strongly supported by residents and Council. Some people also felt that a lot more information is needed on how many people enter and leave the area, crossing the tracks, using all mobility modes and at different times. (Current rough figures show a relatively small percentage of traffic to downtown crosses the tracks, but that’s all that was presented.) Opinion was divided on what should happen with the two now-disjunct pieces of Evelyn Avenue. The western one could potentially provide a connection with Shoreline Boulevard, but they’re currently at very different heights. Staff and consultants will provide more information on all of this, with termination of Castro at its north end a starting point, and with a strong emphasis on bicycle/pedestrian safety.

Local campaign finance disclosure

This report ends with a topic central to LWV concerns. Faceless “independent expenditure committees” caused an uproar in the 2014 Council election. The City Attorney, LWV-LAMV, and residents have proposed ways of shining light on them, starting with disclosure of top funders on all external-origin advertisements, with low dollar triggers for the requirement. Council supported having an ordinance (to come back later this spring) with such requirements, and also mandating electronic filing (for candidates), which would make data-tracking more efficient.

–Julie Lovins and Lucas Ramirez, Observers