‘Place life over wealth’: Mountain View tenants rise up to save vanishing rental units

They’ve shared meals over their dinner tables, enjoyed
spirited conversations in their front yards and celebrated
quinceaneras on their street — Gamel Way, a cul de sac in
Mountain View that many of them have called home for years.

But on one recent night, two dozen or so of these neighbors who
have become more like a family gathered in the backyard of one of
their outdated apartment complexes for a much more sobering purpose
— to form a tenants union.

After learning about a proposal to raze their 29 rent-controlled
apartments to make room for a condominium building with 118
for-sale units, the Gamel Way tenants hired an attorney in a
desperate bid to save their homes or find a way to continue living
in the city even if their homes are demolished.

“I’m a fighter,” said Gaël Sisich, a Bay Area native who
has been living in his studio apartment on Gamel Way for the past
eight years, as he and others huddled in a circle, under dim
lights, brainstorming about their next move.

MOUNTAIN
VIEW, CA – OCTOBER 3: Gael Sisich poses for a photograph in his
neighborhood in Mountain View, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.
(Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

“I’ve fought a lot of things in my life — both emotionally
and physically. I’m not going anywhere, ” added Sisich, who
moved there to be close to his specialists at Stanford after
suffering from cancer years ago.

Less than three miles away from Google’s giant Mountain View
headquarters, the plight of tenants on Gamel Way illustrates just
how the flood of Silicon Valley tech workers continues to fuel the
relentless Bay Area housing crisis, pushing working-class and
low-income individuals and families to the fringes.

So the proposal submitted by developer Kevin Denardi and his
partner Tod Spieker comes as little surprise to residents in
Mountain View. As the city’s apartment stock has aged, more and
more landlords are taking their units off the market, demolishing
them and replacing them with condos and townhouses priced close to
$1 million or more.

Over the past four years, tenants living in approximately 1,040
apartments in Mountain View have received notices to vacate due to
plans to develop their properties, according to the city’s
data.

And although the city approved the construction of thousands of
apartment units during those years, the rents are nearly double or
triple the price of the rent-controlled units being removed from
the housing stock.

In a city where nearly 60 percent of the population are renters,
that means low-income residents are increasingly being replaced by
those who can afford premium rents for luxury units.

Among them are Thomas Garcia and his wife, Irma, who for the
past 17 years have lived in their apartment on Gamel Street, right
next door to a couple of apartments where their two children,
spouses and six grandchildren also live.

MOUNTAIN
VIEW, CA – OCTOBER 3: Thomas Garcia and his wife Irma pose for a
photograph outside of their apartment in Mountain View, Calif., on
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Garcia, a janitor at Stanford University, helps watch his
grandchildren during the day, picks up his wife from her
housekeeping job in the afternoon and then goes to work until 2
a.m. each day. But now the Garcia’s are not only facing the loss
of their home but also may be forced to move to a more affordable
city, changing jobs and breaking up their close-knit family

“Our family is very important to us and now we might to have
to separate,” Garcia said through a translator. “It’s very,
very sad.”

The Garcia’s and their neighbors on Gamel Way are not the
first to take a stand against being forced out of their homes. In
December 2018, another tenants union went before the City Council
asking it to reject a plan to raze 20 rent-controlled apartments at
2005 Rock St. in order to build 15 luxury townhouses.

Although the tenants failed to stop that project, they were
given more time to move out of their homes and more money than what
is typically offered under the city’s tenant relocation
assistance ordinance, which guarantees households a cash payment
equivalent to at least three months of rent.

What makes the redevelopment proposal on Gamel Way unique is
that the developers have asked the city to sell them the rights to
the cul de sac.

Although Mountain View has sold public streets to for-profit
developers before, this would be the first time in recent years it
has done so knowing the decision would displace nearly 50
tenants.

In March 2017, Lennar Homes of California bought industrial
buildings on either side of dead-end Mora Drive and purchased the
street from the city for $2.88 million. The purchase gave Lennar
Homes 1.4 additional acres that could be developed into 10 more
housing units sold for more than $1.3 million each.

Dennis Drennan, Mountain View’s real property program
administrator, said the city is “not in the business of
arbitrarily closing a street” and needs “a compelling reason”
to do it.

In the cases of Mora Drive and Gamel Way, Drennan said the
compelling reason is that the roads would only serve the immediate
developers once the project is complete.

Nazanin Salehi, an attorney with Community Legal Services of
East Palo Alto, says the developers’ request to buy Gamel Way
gives the city a leg up for negotiations.

“If the council is serious about their goals of reducing or
eliminating displacement in Mountain View and if the sale of this
street is essential to the project, then it means that they have an
opportunity to stand by those values and get the best outcome for
these tenants that they possibly can,” Salehi said.

The city and developers are currently working with private
appraisers to negotiate a selling price for the street.

Denardi, who was born and raised in Mountain View, said he
understands this is a difficult situation for the current tenants.
But, he added, the project will increase the city’s housing stock
and open up less expensive ownership options. The condos are
expected to sell for just under $1 million as opposed to the
city’s staggering median home price of about $1.5 million,
according to Denardi.

In the next couple of months, Denardi said he plans to meet with
the tenants to ask them how he can make their relocation
smoother.

“I feel strongly about working with each individual tenant
that is going to be displaced by our project and opening dialogue
and creating a solution that can help each one of them out,” he
said.

In the meantime, the City Council on Nov. 18 is expected to
discuss various initiatives to try and curb the displacement of
low-income residents.

The council is considering loosening the city’s rent control
ordinance, which has been cited by some community members and city
officials as a possible reason why landlords are exiting the
business.

In 2016, city voters approved a rent control act that prohibits
landlords of apartment complexes with three or more units and built
before 1995 from raising the annual rent of a unit more than the
consumer price index, which has stayed around 3.5 percent the past
three years.

At a meeting last month, the council considered posing a March
2020 ballot measure that would increase the rent a landlord could
legally raise each year from the annual consumer price index to a 5
percent flat rate. No final decision was made.

“Ultimately I feel like we’re entertaining all of this
because we do want to address the situations where housing
providers are choosing to sell and we have incredibly painful
decisions to make about new developments,” Mayor Lisa Matichak
said during the meeting.

Salehi, however, said the notion that rent control has spurred
landlords to stop renting is “extremely disingenuous,” pointing
out that nearly 270 units were taken off the market during the two
years before the ordinance passed.

The Gamel Way project is currently under review by city staff
and has yet to go before the council in open session, although the
street sale has been discussed in a closed-door session.

Uncertain what the coming months will bring, Gamel Way tenants
went before the council this past week pleading for help.

“The acquisition of wealth, while important, if it becomes the
sole driving focus, sucks the livelihood and community out of a
city,” Joseph Ewald, a veteran and tenant of Gamel Way, told the
council. “Please place life over wealth and please protect this
vibrant community.”

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
‘Place life over wealth’: Mountain View tenants rise up to save vanishing rental units