Housing crisis hangs over council race

Candidates present different visions for growing city

Mountain View Voice September 7, 2018

Amid expensive housing, congested roads and rising numbers of people living on the streets, Mountain View is experiencing a flurry of challenges. These growing pains for the city became the central theme for six candidates running for the City Council during their first public policy discussion last week.

The Aug. 30 candidate forum, organized by the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, gave citizens a chance to ask those running about their positions. It was a polite, civil event for the candidates: former planner Alison Hicks, Planning Commissioner Lucas Ramirez, Councilwoman Pat Showalter, Planning Commissioner Ellen Kamei, former Councilman John Inks and Mayor Lenny Siegel. Unlike a formal debate, the forum allowed candidates to take turns answering questions from the audience, and they were restricted from directly challenging or responding to each other's comments.

By far, housing issues underpinned the discussion, and all candidates agreed that Mountain View needs more of it, although they differed on how to accomplish that.

Yes, housing is vital, said Hicks, but she immediately framed her campaign around ensuring that growth is accomplished responsibly. Parks, trees, safe streets and walkable communities all have to be considered as the city builds up, she said.

"We may be the fastest growing city in the Bay Area, and I'm running to make sure that growth is great growth," she said. "Along with building, we need to build it right."

On the other end of the spectrum was Mayor Lenny Siegel, who indicated he was less concerned with the qualities of housing, rather than the quantity. Solving the housing crisis means new market-rate housing and lots of it, which would provide fees to pay for new subsidized housing, he said.

Housing is the "existential crisis" of Mountain View, said Ramirez. The best way to solve the crisis is to build high-density housing near job centers, he said. He plugged long-term planning to encourage more duplexes, triplexes and transit systems.

"Over time as the community evolves ... I think we can retrofit this community in a way that makes transit a viable option for people," he said.

Echoing a theme of her campaign, Kamei touted building more housing priced for the "missing middle," those earning too much to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to buy a home. A recent Bay Area housing assessment reported that Mountain View had built zero homes fitting this income category, she said.

Inks parted ways with the group on this issue, saying city policies were causing older affordable apartments to be razed and rebuilt into pricey condos. He didn't utter the words "rent control," but his implication was clear.

Dovetailing with housing, candidates were also asked about the growing homeless population, exemplified by the inhabited vehicles on city streets. Mountain View is funding three full-time workers who are trying to help people living on the street access services, but it a difficult balancing act, Showalter said. Poverty isn't a crime, but the city needs to enforce rules against any criminal activity stemming from those vehicles, she said.

Many other candidates touted Mountain View as a "compassionate" city. Hicks and Ramirez both said that public land should be repurposed as some kind of temporary parking area for vehicle dwellers. Inks, who said he had previously been an "urban camper," pointed out that many residents are losing patience with people squatting in their neighborhoods, and he suggested the city needed to stop "subsidizing habits."

Speaking next, Siegel swiftly denounced the push to sweep the homeless out of town.

"I will not be intimidated by the intolerant few who think we can play whack-a-mole and knock them out of our community," he said. "I'm not going to throw them out just because we don't like to look at them."

On another issue, bringing paid parking to downtown Mountain View, Siegel was in the minority. He came out against the idea for disproportionately punishing the poor, while other candidates indicated they were open to studying the idea. Paid parking is worth testing out as a pilot program, Kamei said.

The Chamber of Commerce moderator also made sure to ask about the city's proposed employee-based tax on businesses, which some are calling the "Google tax." Kamei and Ramirez both said the city could have done better in drafting the tax increase with the business community, but they indicated general support. Inks said Measure P would hurt businesses by disincentivizing them from growing beyond certain thresholds. Siegel was the only champion for the proposed tax, describing it as a "drop in the bucket" for most businesses to pay.

The candidates spoke about a variety of issues, including transportation, teacher housing and sustainability. More information on the candidates' positions can be found online at mv-voice.com.

The next candidate forum will be hosted by the League of Women Voters on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at Charlie's Cafe on the Google campus at 1600 Amphitheatre Way in Mountain View. The event is scheduled for 4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. with a reception to follow.