Housing — or the lack of it — is once again grabbing headlines and TV time in California, with a special edge of urgency in the Palo Alto/Silicon Valley region.
The six candidates for governor are being grilled on how they would address (few use the term "solve") what is now almost universally called a "housing crisis."
A recent annual conference on the trends and future of Silicon Valley warned that unless the crisis as addressed effectively it could mean the end of the golden era of Silicon Valley — as corporations and people relocate elsewhere where housing is cheaper and living is easier.
Here's the crux of the problem: Statewide about 180,000 new housing units are needed each year just to keep up with population growth, according to the state's Department of Finance.
But the state has been falling short of that number by about 80,000 units annually for the past eight years, the department estimates.
While the severe "jobs/housing imbalance" has been discussed in and around Palo Alto for decades, the talking has vastly exceeded the doing — at least, doing anything effective. Today we have highways flooded with long-distance commuters and land-use policies that allow or even encourage job-producing developments with no balance of housing.
A strong incentive to do something is simply the economic suffering caused by stratospheric housing costs. Yet barriers to action are formidable, ranging from an inability of cities and counties to form focused, effective working relationships with regional and state agencies to the neighborhood-level resistance to increased density and urbanization. There also are unspoken concerns about "those people" moving into neighborhoods through affordable-housing projects, whether those be ethnic or racial minorities, existing homeless persons, seniors or others.
A major stimulant for today's intensity about the subject is the McKinsey Report, published in October 2016. It called for construction of 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 to stabilize the state's housing imbalance and meet future needs. In a March 8 forum in Sacramento, all six candidates for California governor focused on the topic of housing, with appropriate pledges to do something.
Republican candidates Travis Allen and John Cox called for tax-cut incentives and decreased regulations. Cox said he can build apartments in Indiana for $80,000 each compared to $700,000 each in San Francisco, or $400,000 in Sacramento and $300,000 in Fresno.
Democratic candidates Gavin Newsom, Antonio Villaraigosa and Delaine Easton and John Chung favored increasing affordable-housing tax credits, bringing back redevelopment agencies backed by a state trust fund for housing, housing bonds and revenue streams for housing.
Easton cited the need for new housing bonds and a reliable "revenue stream" to incentivize construction.
When pressed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsom was blunt about the goal: "I knew it was unprecedented and audacious. But it's what must be done.
"A crisis of this magnitude requires ... an affordable housing 'moonshot.' We can't stand by and do nothing as skyrocketing housing costs and the habitual undersupply of (housing) slowly erodes the California Dream and forces more families onto the streets and out of their communities."
Villaraigosa matched the urgency: "It's not about when the clock starts — what I am saying is time is up. ... This is a man-made disaster. It is making middle-class families poor, and making poor families homeless. I've also said we need everything and everyone at the table to find comprehensive, multi-faceted solutions" rather than "one-off policy proposals" that "often pit one interest against the other."
So here we are, facing a potential economic earthquake in Silicon Valley with no clear path ahead to avoid the unnatural consequence of actions and inactions occurring since the 1950s.
Longtime Palo Alto resident Gale Johnson recalls his experience, in response to one of my earlier columns on the housing crisis.
"Yes, it is a 'crisis' now (emphasized) if you work here and can't afford to live here. The commutes are more daunting, much farther and slower, with more highway and local traffic congestion, and parking is also a big problem," he wrote.
"The 'away from home' times are extended by three to four hours because of the commute times. Although, as you pointed out, long commuting isn't a new phenomenon. Even going back to the '60s ... we came here in '61 ... (the) cost of housing was a problem and long commutes were the norm.
"I worked for Kaiser Electronics, located on Page Mill Road in the Stanford Industrial Park. HP's original plant, at the top of the hill, was our neighbor. We had about 300 employees at that time and only about a dozen of us lived in Palo Alto. Many drove from Sunnyvale, Cupertino and San Jose, and some lived in Fremont and commuted across Dumbarton Bridge every day. Others lived in Milpitas, and the distance record was held by a mechanical designer, Lloyd Evans, who lived in Bonny Doon."
Johnson recalled when he lived in a Brown & Kaufman tract home in south Palo Alto: "I could only dream about a big home in north Palo Alto, where the really rich and important/influential people lived. But it is also a fact that back in the early '60s, teachers, firemen, policemen, craftsmen (plumbers and carpenters), pastors, small business owners, secretaries/administrators and others who were not high-income professionals could afford to live here, in my part of town.
"But we also had doctors, lawyers and company owners/executives in the early years of their careers living in our neighborhood. Race, ethnic, religious and economic diversity made our neighborhood a vibrant and exciting area to live in."
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at [email protected]