The polarization over Palo Alto renter Kate Downing’s letter of resignation from the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission continues, as does the Silicon Valley housing crisis that triggered it.
The Palo Alto Weekly calls her accusations of city council inaction “at best, simplistic, and, at worst, untrue”. Online comments include a rant against “entitled Boomers” who bought when Palo Alto was more affordable (but not affordable) and now spend their “privileged” retirement years making it tough on young people to live here. Folks, I don’t particularly care for Boomers either, and I am one, but those of you whose rallying cry is “I think our right to live here is as good as anyone else’s” may not want to call others “entitled”.
Of course, there’s more to this furor than feelings of entitlement. [I’ll italicize the following, so that no one thinks I’m denying that there’s a housing crisis:] Palo Alto’s jobs/housing imbalance stresses its infrastructure and reduces quality of life, while pricing out even those who as recently as a few years ago could afford its housing. And it’s been a long time since Palo Alto was accessible to the teachers, contractors, bakers, mailmen and shipping clerks who were among the parents of my wife’s generation of Palo Alto kids. [Please note that I don’t think this is a good thing.]
But the irony isn’t just that getting priced out of Palo Alto is nothing new. My generation of Palo Alto kids may have been the first displaced from the city they knew and loved and, until that disillusioning moment, maybe took for granted–and that was almost forty years ago. No, the real irony is that the children of the people who priced us out–who were part of the wave after wave of increasingly affluent buyers who from the ’70s on made Palo Alto more and more expensive–don’t understand that not long ago they were the displacers.
Now they’re the displaced. One says, “I think our right to live here is as good as anyone else’s”. Can we make that “right” retroactive?
So is this a local problem, solvable if the city council would just wave its magic wand, or is it regional? Is it purely a matter of economics, or is it a moral issue? If we build “microunits”, will anyone want them, especially when “real” homes are 20 percent less expensive to buy or rent during the next downturn?
Or is it something else as well? Economist Robert Shiller seems better-suited to writing best-sellers than generating sound real estate economics, but in his June 10 analysis in the New York Times, “The Overinflated Fear of Being Priced Out of Housing”, he asks “why do people…worry that home prices are getting out of reach?”, then answers with what may be considerable insight:
“…these fears may reflect anxieties about other issues–like income inequality…In prosperous cities, rising prices may connote economic exclusion.” “After all,” he says, “American society is increasingly divided according to educational attainment and income…[R]arified home prices may set off worries about being unable to live in choice locations shared with successful people.”
“Home prices may, unfortunately, be viewed as a measurement of success in life,” he concludes, “rather than merely of floor space, and fear of being priced out of housing may well be rooted in deeper broodings about maintaining a position in the social hierarchy.”
If Shiller is right, this is a national issue, not local or regional. And it’s as much about “brand” as it is about tree-lined streets. About “winners” and “losers”.
copyright © John Fyten 2016