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Business & Real Estate

Housing crunch

Mountain View is at the top of the list of places to look for housing in the Bay Area.

Don Hoffman began his housing search in Mountain View when he and three other Stanford students moved off-campus in 1998. Starting in Mountain View and going further south, the prices became lower. "We were still students, so we wanted to stay with as short a commute as possible while still being able to live relatively cheaply," he said. "Talking to the neighbors in the area, we found that it's a really safe neighborhood - there are people who leave their garages open regularly. Our house was the cheapest of all the things we found in the area. It has a front yard and a back yard."

The balance of nice neighborhoods with affordable housing is the reason Mountain View drew 8,500 new residents in 2000, an increase of 12 percent over 1990. Unfortunately, it's drawn more people than it can support, resulting in increased rent, overcrowding and road congestion. "Traffic will dictate when we leave," said resident Kristin Ho, a teacher.

But the area keeps attracting more people. Mountain View "prides itself on being a full-service and very diverse community," said Michael Percy, Mountain View's principal planner in charge of long-range planning. "By full-service I mean workplaces, a variety of different kinds of shopping places, single-family homes, multiple-family homes, ownership, rental, a park system, a really good downtown, a variety of opportunities in the community. Some people are attracted by the diversity, as compared with their perception of Los Altos, which has the outside perception of being less diverse. It's become a real Mecca for the whole region. There's a lot of very solid, progressive things happening in Mountain View."

"Castro is a neat place to go. I like how it's not a snobby area. It's a normal-person area," Ho said.

Hoffman said, "I like the tremendous array of good food, especially in the downtown area. Any nationality of food you want, and it's almost all good."

Unfortunately, since Mountain View (and the Bay Area in general) is so much of a draw, many longtime residents can't afford to continue living here. Ho recently got engaged, and she wants to continue living in the area because she grew up in the Bay Area and her family lives here. But she anticipates having to quit her job as a teacher for higher-paying work if she wants to afford a single-family home when she gets married.

"Weather-wise I love the Bay Area. People-wise I think it's great. But it's way too expensive," she said. "It's difficult for me in my kind of job. It's going up so much that the normal person can't afford to live here. There're certain people you need in any community - firemen, teachers, police officers - and if you can't support them they're going to leave. There are people in other places who get paid as much as I do and don't have to worry."

"That is a difficult issue," said Percy. "People in some cases have had to leave the community because the cost of housing has exceeded their ability to pay for housing. People have doubled up in housing, so you may at (when the market was at) lower prices have had a single individual occupying a one- or two-bedroom apartment, but now they have to have a roommate," he said.

Rent on Hoffman's house has increased by $500 in a little over two years. To afford a place, Ho and Hoffman have to live with roommates. Ho says the mentality in the morning is, "Who do you have to beat to the shower to make sure you're not late for work?"

The city has tried to provide new affordable housing, but since there's little land available and construction costs are so high, its efforts have been "a drop in the bucket compared to the total need," Percy said.

He added Mountain View is in the early stages of revising the housing element of the city's general plan. "Cost and availability are two of the core issues to be discussed." Plans under consideration are finding more places to build housing units, new fees on commercial and industrial development to pay for subsidized housing, and re-zoning.

"We'll be looking at a variety of different approaches to see how we might be able to provide more affordable housing and more housing in total," Percy said.

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