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Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 4, 2014

Off Deadline

Local jobs/housing gap creates insoluble social, environmental dilemma

by Jay Thorwaldson

Sometimes the best intentions can create the worst results.

That in a nutshell describes the so far insurmountable imbalance between jobs and housing in Palo Alto — now about 3.13 jobs for every household — far worse than it was 40 years ago.

That figure, by far the highest in the region if not all of Northern California, was reported recently by the San Jose Business Journal.

It's not news that Palo Alto leads the pack in the so-called jobs/housing imbalance. In 1973, I wrote a detailed article for the Cry California magazine, the journal of the California Tomorrow organization — a strong advocate for regional and statewide planning from 1961 to its dissolution in 1983.

In a column in the March 14 Weekly I noted that the imbalance in the late 1960s and early 1970s was 2.5 jobs per household, even then one of the worst anywhere. (See

The imbalance already was pushing up housing prices in Palo Alto, along with the "lighthouse" school district and being a great place to live and work.

And that was at a time when the predominant family pattern was one worker per household. Two-worker households emerged with the liberation of women and the need simply to pay bills in a tighter world, led by rents and mortgages.

With that many more jobs than houses, a huge number of Palo Alto employees were forced to look for housing outside of Palo Alto, initially in nearby communities but increasingly further afield. Most of us have known or worked with someone commuting from Morgan Hill or Gilroy, or the East Bay, or even Stockton and Manteca in the Central Valley.

Has anyone qualified as the longest daily commuter? In 1973, the average was 18 miles one way. It's now estimated at 20-something miles. That's average, not the range, and is offset by those who hardly commute at all. Hours on the road don't seem to even be measured.

The environmental impact became significant: Some commutes began exceeding one or even two hours, with the consequent burning of gasoline and air pollution, made worse with inevitable traffic backups.

There was a social cost: Long-distance commuters lost their after-work hours, from community softball teams to volunteer time to simple relaxation and family time. Their "home" communities never got those activities either, because some barely get home in time for family dinners, or to hug their kids goodnight.

Meanwhile, a continuing citizen rebellion against overdevelopment of Palo Alto and the Peninsula was well underway. In the late 1960s Palo Alto rejected higher-density housing plans proposed for its vast foothills region, as large an area as the city's developed flatlands. One early study suggested 50,000 people could be housed in the hills up to Skyline Ridge.

Open-space advocates succeeded in creating the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which to date has acquired and permanently dedicated more than 60,000 acres of land from south of Los Gatos to San Carlos and from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. (Disclosure: I drafted the 1970 Palo Alto Times' editorial suggesting that such a district be created.)

But open space is not an end-all. There are vast areas of America that have lots of wide open spaces but which have no economy.

Then, in parallel with the slow-growth/open space movements, a bitterly cruel thing happened to family budgets: Gasoline prices skyrocketed. Those who couldn't afford housing in or near Palo Alto suddenly discovered they were hard-pressed to fill their tanks — a double economic whammy.

Use of available transit systems increased, but still lags — in part because the Bay Area is notoriously poor in linking its independent transit systems. A Palo Altan returning from a trip to Europe observed it was easier getting around Paris on public transportation not speaking French than getting around the Bay Area as a native English speaker.

And there is no relief in sight.

Palo Alto neighborhoods are in revolt against overflow parking and overdevelopment of commercial/office buildings. Even a low-income senior-housing project was rejected last year by voters because too many market-priced houses (12) were also included in a small court in Palo Alto's Barron Park area.

But even a full-steam-ahead housing push could not tame the jobs/housing imbalance — if sites were available and local residents decided to allow major housing developments.

Even including surrounding communities in a sub-regional housing push would fall short of getting the imbalance down, and resistance to increased density would quickly wake up the so-called bedroom communities.

The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has attempted to assign housing goals to individual communities, but the hundreds of units assigned to Palo Alto and other communities have generated serious resistance. So far the goals have had no "teeth" — as in penalties or firm requirements. Some baby teeth are in the latest round, such as losing state or federal grants if communities fail to meet standards.

Alternatives to cars seem ineffectual. There is no active region-wide move to streamline transit services and improve schedule "articulation" between counties and BART or Caltrain. There is vigorous opposition to the proposed high-speed rail service that would run up the Peninsula. Electrification of Caltrain is on the table, but with many hurdles ahead and few if any plans to add grade separations at cross streets.

The bottom line is that there is simply no overall solution to the economic, social and environmental catastrophe that has been created by our citizens and leadership over the past half century, beyond some small mitigating actions.

It's hard to assign blame to well-meaning people struggling to preserve a "liveable" community and neighborhood, or to preserve the priceless open-space backdrop of the Skyline Ridge and Santa Cruz Mountains.

But we still need to acknowledge the terrible, insoluble dilemma we have created out of all those years of good intentions.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at and/or He also writes periodic blogs at


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