Lupita Garcia works three $12-an-hour jobs just to afford a corner of an apartment living room near El Camino Real in Mountain View. Despite earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology, the 26-year-old says she lives in fear of being stuck in low-paying jobs without a stable career or place to call her own. She’s quick to smile but at the same time she’s tired from dividing her time as a legal assistant, a cashier and a nanny. She wants to become a social worker, and once she earns a law degree, becoming an attorney is the next step.
But that probably won’t happen, at least not here in Mountain View.
Earlier this month, Garcia, a 22-year resident of the tech 'burb best known for Google and its sprawling campus, told this story at a candidate forum for the nine people running for a seat on Mountain View’s City Council. “I just hope you candidates, when you are in office, take into consideration that young people also have a place to live in Mountain View,” she said. “Because right now, my rent increases every three months and I’m right on the border of thinking I should move to Los Baños, Merced or somewhere else where I can afford to live and not be struggling and not be working three jobs just to live in the area.”
An influx of six-figure salaried tech workers has dramatically changed the socioeconomic landscape of Mountain View over the last 25 years. What used to be a sleepy middle-class town has now turned into a 74,000-person tech hub with the traffic congestion of a major city. As gridlock along Highway 101 forces more tech workers to relocate to Mountain View, bringing with them sizable disposable incomes, landlords have been able to benefit unchecked. The city has no rent control ordinance, leaving many long-time residents feeling helpless as rental prices have skyrocketed. The average cost for a 1-bedroom apartment in Mountain View is $2,356, according to myapartmentmap.com. And that amount is only expected to increase.
While many of the prospective candidates for the council sympathized with Garcia, none seem keen to take on developers and big-monied apartment lobbies like the California Apartment Association’s Tri-County Division and the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors. Of the nine candidates, most said they simply don’t think rent control will work, including all three renters in the race—Ellen Kamei, Mercedes Salem and Jim Neal.
Other candidates, such as Margaret Capriles, Lisa Matichak and Ken Rosenberg, warned of doomsday scenarios like landlords letting rentals fall into disrepair, or rents soaring immediately before controls are enacted. The remaining three— Pat Showalter, Lenny Siegel and Greg Unangst—punted by saying they are open to studying solutions other than rent control.
Garcia’s predicament is not an isolated one. Sixty percent of Mountain View’s residents are renters. They range from newly minted transplants to city natives whose families put down roots generations ago. Up and down Castro Street, café conversations will touch on rent increases of 20 to 30 percent, overcrowded apartments or residents packing up and leaving altogether. Everyone, it seems, either knows someone touched by the out-of-control rental market, or is experiencing the pain firsthand.
Mountain View’s situation, like the rest of Silicon Valley, boils down to Economics 101—not enough housing supply to meet demand. The city’s development director, Randy Tsuda, confirmed a projection of 6 million square feet of new office space will be built by 2030. In comparison, a chart he provided shows that only about 2,300 housing units have been approved since 2009, with just another 3,000 possible under current zoning by 2023.
And while the city has subsidized construction of hundreds of affordable units since 2005, using below-market-rates in lieu of fees from developers, it’s not doing enough to meet the needs of thousands of residents struggling financially, according to housing activists from the San Francisco Organizing Project–Peninsula Interfaith Action (SFOP-PIA), the group that sponsored the candidates’ forum.
While few in Mountain View appear willing to take the rent control fight to housing lobbyist Goliaths, SFOP-PIA has stepped up as the proverbial David. A racially and economically diverse cast of characters, the group said it relies on faith when advocating for change. The alternative would be too depressing.
“It’s a terrible situation,” said Maria Marroquin, a member of SFOP-PIA and the executive director of the Mountain View Day Workers Center. “Only faith can rescue us and give us the power and hope to be fighting for.”
Joining Marroquin is Phil Cosby, a 15-year member of PIA through St. Athanasius Catholic Church on Rengstorff Avenue. The retired scientist is a housing activist and Mountain View landlord, albeit a small one. He rents a duplex to “two lovely families.” Cosby first got involved in PIA in 1998. One of the first issues the group tackled was advocating for more housing in the wake of spiraling rents during the dot-com boom in 1999.
“I’m a landlord, [yet] my expenses aren’t doubling,” Cosby remembers thinking to himself. “There’s no reason to raise the rent more than the rate of inflation every year.”
That attitude has Cosby and the rest of SFOP-PIA advocating for rent stabilization, something the city of San Jose has had in place since 1979. Instead of controlling rents at a certain amount, rent stabilization allows landlords to raise rents by a set percentage each year. In San Jose’s case, it’s 8 percent for triplexes or larger complexes built before 1979. It does not apply to condominiums, duplexes, single-family homes or federally subsidized properties. For rents that have not increased in two years landlords can increase it up to 21 percent, and it does allow landlords to apply fees to pass on improvements made to properties that exceed the annual increase.
Cosby and colleagues recently sent a survey to the nine council candidates in advance of the Oct. 10 forum. It asked if the council should “direct staff to research creation of a Mountain View rent stabilization ordinance, consistent with California state law.” Cosby called it a fairly “benign” question. Only Unangst marked “strongly agree,” while Matichak marking “strongly disagree.” The other seven candidates checked “undecided/other,” keeping them in a gray area that leaves them less susceptible to split their bases of support.
Siegel—who answered “undecided/other” on SFOP-PIA’s statement about studying rent stabilization—was at the forefront of the fight for rent control in Mountain View in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He said anti-rent control forces outspent pro-control groups 100 to one. But now the community activist and executive director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight said he’s focusing on bringing more housing to the city rather than rent control.
This past spring, Siegel formed the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View, which is pushing the city to add a housing element to the North Bayshore Precise Plan. Currently the plan would add 3.4 million square feet of office space and zero housing to the area north of Highway 101, near Google’s campus.
“It’s difficult to do, but it’s conceivable someone could come up with a limited form of rent control to prevent gouging and help a fraction of the rental population,” Siegel said. “But it’s not a long-term solution to our housing crisis. A long-term solution is changing supply and demand.”
Any form of control, including stabilization, however, would only apply to a portion of Mountain View’s rental market. The Costa-Hawkins Act, passed in 1995, allows rent control to apply only to units built before February of that year. And when a tenant leaves a rent-stabilized unit, landlords can always just raise prices to market rates.
But there are concerns that landlords could be arbitrarily evicting tenants, requiring companion ordinances that compel landlords to show “just cause” for evictions. In East Palo Alto, the only nearby municipality with rent control, the council unanimously passed tenant protections in April of this year. Residents had complained of routine evictions, harassment and a lack of maintenance by owners, mainly the city’s largest landowner, Equity Residential.
Cosby and his fellow advocates at SFOP-PIA say any form of stabilization is better than nothing at this point, if only to bring calm back to the community.
“At least they don’t have the fear of thinking that 30 days or 60 days from now their rent is going to be unaffordable to them,” Cosby said. “Because right now, there’s no limit to what a landlord can raise the rent to, and there’s no limit to the number of times they raise the rent.”