They Paved Palo Alto & Put Up a Parking Lot: The Need for More Housing Near Jobs

1950’s Palo Alto Town & Country Village, by Alden Jewell

Anyone who cares about housing in California should read Kate Vershov Downing’s resignation letter from the Palo Alto Planning Commission, which recently sparked a nationwide conversation on housing policy.

I recently wrote about the hypocrisy in San Francisco’s housing politics, where the highly-racialized, NIMBY, xenophobic politics around housing have resulted in policies that hurt low-income workers. But there’s a flipside to this, as well. While San Francisco looks askance at development, viewing it as bringing in only rich people at the expense of everyone else, those in the Peninsula and Silicon Valley view it as bringing in the poor and lowering home values by increasing the supply. Downing’s letter clearly and succinctly exposes how these exclusionary politics plague the Bay Area.

Downing specifically highlights the role played by the Palo Alto City Council:

This Council has ignored the majority of residents and has charted a course for the next 15 years of this city’s development which substantially continues the same job-housing imbalance this community has been suffering from for some time now: more offices, a nominal amount of housing which the Council is already laying the groundwork to tax out of existence, lip service to preserving retail that simply has no reason to keep serving the average Joe when the city is only affordable to Joe Millionaires.

This policy direction pushes more tech workers into denser areas like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, which then requires more people to rely on the tech shuttles hated by the Bay Area Left to get to and from work in Silicon Valley. Places like Palo Alto are making urban Bay Area communities, the same cities that I strongly believe need to build more housing, pay a much higher price while the suburban “haves” continue to reap the stratospheric profits of near-zero housing supply and endless demand.

In an interview with SF Curbed, Downing covered many issues, including the need to build more density in downtown areas near Caltrain stations and calling attention to the fact that Palo Alto decided to become a jobs center without building housing. Downing said of the anti-housing opposition, “These people will say anything, but they don’t really care about congestion or water use. They care about keeping the town looking exactly the way it is. These are people who view suburbia as the ideal and they look at urbanization as the death of the American Dream. They think public transit is for the poor and apartments are for people on welfare.”

Inspired by Downing’s op-ed, Palo Alto Weekly ran a cover story this week on the housing crisis. The story highlights how, despite the rise of more pro-housing groups like Palo Alto Forward, the city’s status quo has meant more-of-the-same destructive policies that exclude most of us from having a chance to live anywhere within reach of Palo Alto’s job market.

In the same article, Palo Alto City Councilmember Cory Wolbach compared the inaction on housing to climate change:

In both cases, there’s often resistance from people who are either denying the research demonstrating that there is a problem or denying that the problem can be solved. In both cases, we hear arguments that addressing the problem may damage our quality of life and, in both cases, if we’re smart about it, people will recognize that we can address the issue without impacting our quality of life.

There are many folks from Palo Alto to San Francisco who’d benefit from taking Mr. Wolbach’s words to heart. Just as it’s smart to slam climate change deniers as dangerous, it’s also wise not to put our heads in the sand when it comes to the hard truths we face with housing.

Presciently, Downing said in an interview with The Atlantic’s City Lab blog, “It’s not like we’ve magically run out of room. Most of Silicon Valley is just ugly strip malls. We have tons of space for housing. We’re just choosing not to build it.”

The current generation of majority-white, upper-middle-class homeowners throughout the Peninsula and East Bay must come to terms with the consequences of their opposition to development. Rent that’s so high that people will never be able to live anywhere near work is not realistic. Do they really want to zone and price their own children out of community?

At times, it really does feel like the “boomers paved over farmland to build neighborhoods [and] now those same suburbs are off-limits to new development.”

But even if Palo Alto’s residents don’t take action, there are others who surely will. The San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation is currently suing Lafayette in the East Bay for rejecting high-density apartments near its BART station in favor of a few multimillion-dollar single family homes. Inaction, or destructive behavior, will continue to get the attention of those of us living in cities where workforces are quite literally dumped on us because of fewer affordable options elsewhere.

I love Palo Alto. I grew up visiting family friends there for years and continue to frequently drive there on a whim whenever I need a break from San Francisco’s hustle and bustle. I’ve even had the chance to get to know some of its hard-working civic leaders through work. But even my special place needs to become a part of the solution to our housing crisis and be willing to make some fair changes.

The longer Bay Area suburbs obstruct smart growth housing, the worse things will get for renters and aspirational homeowners. The time for change is now, and the way to change is to increase the supply of affordable homes in the areas where people work. Although complicated for innumerable reasons, the calculation really should be that simple.