Do I have the right to live anywhere I want?

Palo Alto renter Kate Downing’s public letter of resignation from the City of Palo Alto’s Planning and Transportation Commission raises both valid points and largely unanswerable questions, at a time when Silicon Valley’s housing crisis makes national news–and as prices and rents show signs of moderating.


Like many others, Ms. Downing, an attorney, and her software engineer husband find themselves essentially priced out of the Palo Alto housing market.  “I struggle to think what Palo Alto will become and what it will represent,” says Ms. Downing, “when young families have no hope of ever putting down roots here, and meanwhile the community is engulfed with middle-aged jet-setting executives and investors who are hardly the sort to be personally volunteering for neighborhood block parties, earthquake preparedness responsibilities, or neighborhood watch.”

There’s no disputing that Palo Alto needs engaged people like Ms. Downing–you don’t get a lot of love serving on the Palo Alto Planning Commission.  There’s also no disputing that the city has become shockingly expensive.  But I will dispute Ms. Downing’s description of who’s buying here (“Joe Millionaires”) these days.  The same edition of the Palo Alto Weekly that quotes her letter also reports eleven candidates vying for four open positions on the Palo Alto city council, so there’s no current shortage of civic-minded Palo Altans.  Judging from their photos, all candidates are either young or middle-aged, understandable given the endurance that Palo Alto city council meetings demand.  And it’s my experience that the people attending Palo Alto open houses are mostly young families and single professionals.

Those unanswerable questions?

  1. Does everyone have a right to live anywhere they want?  More particularly, do people have a right to live in Palo Alto?  I’m just asking, because up to now the housing market has been remarkably Darwinian, without making the national or local news.
  2. If people do have a right to live in Palo Alto (or Atherton, or Woodside, or San Francisco), who has priority?  Firemen, police and teachers?  Software engineers?  People who were born and raised in Palo Alto and priced out the minute they left home?  My wife, a third-generation Palo Altan?  The Elwood P. Cubberley High School graduating class of 1971?
  3. As far back as the late 1970s Palo Alto parents were worrying about whether their kids could afford the city they grew up in, according to a Palo Alto Times-Tribune article from that period I found while cleaning out my parents’ Palo Alto home.  Why is this a crisis only now?  Because we didn’t have blogs back then?
  4. Says Ms. Downing, “I’ve seen friends from other states get job offers here and then turn them down when they started to look at the price of housing”.  I’ve seen people freak about local housing costs since the dot-com era, almost twenty years ago, when Palo Alto prices were 60 percent of what they are now.  Yet people keep coming.
  5. Would a Palo Alto with increased density–with, for example, granny units in every back yard–still be a city people fight to get into, or would it just be a city with no street parking?
  6. Is high-density housing what Palo Alto’s firemen, police, teachers and software engineers want?  Or do they want what almost everyone else wants:  a detached home on a decent-sized lot?  Can we build enough of those in Palo Alto to make even a miniscule dent in the jobs/housing imbalance?  A study done for the city council says it’s unlikely that we could we build even enough high-density housing to make more than a miniscule dent.

Again, these are just questions.  You may detect skepticism in some of them, but I think they’re objective questions, inherent to this discussion.  Yet if anyone is asking them, let alone answering them, I haven’t seen it.

I don’t have a horse in this race, because anything the city council does or doesn’t do to create more affordable housing is way too late to affect me, except perhaps to take a few cars off the road–and maybe not even that.  It’s not like I’m on 101 at 7:30 in the morning.  I’m certainly not anti-development:  I love what’s happening in downtown Palo Alto, where I work,  although it makes driving there like a video game set at medium difficulty.  Although I’ve lived in this area since 1967, I don’t have sympathy with people who want to keep Palo Alto–“their” Palo Alto–just like it was back when they arrived (and did their part to inalterably change the city, much to the consternation of those who were already here), because it can’t happen unless Palo Alto joins the Rust Belt.  And I don’t think I lack empathy:  virtually all my clients are young professionals of about Ms. Downing’s age and apparent income.  Very few can afford Palo Alto, but they seem happy buying in Sunnyvale or Redwood City instead.

fish swallowing fish

Then there’s the irony of a flood of well-paid Silicon Valley residents fleeing the influx of even better-paid new arrivals who drive up Valley home prices and rents, and relocating to more-affordable Santa Cruz, as Ms. Downing is, or to Portland, where 12 percent of new arrivals last year were ex-Californians–thereby causing resentment in Santa Cruz and Portland by driving up home prices and rents in those cities.  As I say, the housing market is remarkably Darwinian.  Or maybe it’s more like back when one tribe would be displaced by a more aggressive tribe, which would be displaced by an even more aggressive tribe.

Perhaps my hand therapist has the right idea:  just tell everyone that Redwood City is Palo Alto.

copyright © John Fyten 2016




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