A Former Palo Alto City Planner on Silicon Valley’s Housing Mess

”People look around and think, ‘Boy, things are expensive.’ They don’t realize that they’re expensive because of decisions that the local government makes.”

A home in Palo Alto, California (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

Last week, Kate Vershov Downing, a lawyer who served on the planning and transportation commission for the city of Palo Alto, California, resigned from her volunteer position. She also posted her resignation letter on Medium, announcing that she and her husband, an engineer, were leaving the pricey Silicon Valley burg for Santa Cruz, some 40 miles away. She was tired, she wrote, of paying $6,200 a month to share a rented four-bedroom house with another couple:

[I]f we wanted to buy the same home and share it with children and not roommates, it would cost $2.7M and our monthly payment would be $12,177 a month in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. That’s $146,127 per year — an entire professional’s income before taxes. This is unaffordable even for an attorney and a software engineer.

Downing, who’s active in a local advocacy group called Palo Alto Forward, also expressed some frustration with the city’s unwillingness to create more affordable housing. She appears to have struck a nerve in the Bay Area, where skyrocketing real-estate prices are a local obsession, and especially in Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University, several technology firms, and a housing stock that has become increasingly more expensive. She recently spoke to CityLab about the Silicon Valley housing crisis and why her resignation made her the target of both local and national attention.

David Dudley: For those who aren’t in the Bay Area, can you explain what’s going on in Palo Alto?

Kate Downing: Let’s go back really far, because it’s important for the context of the story. There used to be all these Native American tribes that lived on this land. White settlers came, killed all the Native Americans, and planted orchards. Leland Stanford, orchards; that was his thing. At some point, the city council decided, let’s pave over the orchards and build suburbs and cul-de-sacs for Baby Boomers and their cars. That’s the history of Palo Alto; that’s how it got formed, one suburban subdivision after another.

What happened after that is the birth of Silicon Valley. You have Stanford graduating more and more engineers; you have companies coming here from the East Coast. Palo Alto transformed into something else. It’s not just a suburb anymore. Suddenly, you’re claiming to be the innovation capital of the planet.

To some extent, that kind of dissonance is what we’re still seeing. There are people here who came because it was a nice suburb and are frankly just inconvenienced by the whole Silicon Valley thing. Then there are people who value this place as the economic engine that it is for America. Local government is controlled mostly by older homeowners. They really don’t have an interest in adding housing here. They just plain don’t want to see more people in the city.

Dudley: Did you anticipate that your resignation letter was going to touch such a nerve?

Downing: I had no idea. I thought maybe the local paper would write about it, but that’s about it. Honestly, I’m extraordinarily dumbfounded. For months now [on the city council], we’ve been hearing from our fire department that almost all our firefighters live three hours or more away. We’ve seen teachers come before city council and say, guys, we’re not going to renew our contracts because we can’t afford to live anywhere near here. Those are the stories people should pay attention to. If those people leave, the community is really in trouble. I’m struck by why anyone would care why one lawyer is leaving.

Dudley: When you see some of the comments and responses you’ve received to your letter, you see the sides tend to break on generational lines. You clearly see this as a conflict between younger and older residents.

Downing: I come from a family where we always wanted and expected to see future generations do better than us. What you see in Palo Alto is the opposite. You hear people saying, “My kids can’t afford to live here, and I’m OK with that.” Or, “If you can’t afford to live here, it means you’re not working hard enough. You don’t deserve to be here.” Or they say, “Why don’t you just keep renting forever? You’re not entitled to own a home.”

The reason for the history lesson is: We paved over the orchards to make way for the Baby Boomers, and now the Boomers are fighting with Millennials who want to turn one-story strip malls into four-story apartments.

It’s so jarring. When the Boomers were in their 20s and 30s, the government made it a priority for the middle class to be able to own a home. We created all these incentives to help make the American Dream come true. It’s such a core part of the Boomer generation. Now, these same people say, even though you’re highly educated professionals, you should be OK with renting for the rest of your lives.

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.

Dudley: How do you respond when people ask, “Why don’t you just move somewhere cheaper?”

Downing: Part of what I was trying to say in my letter was: I’m a highly educated, well-off attorney. I can move to another place and find another job. You can tell me to get lost. But are you going to say the same thing to our police force? To our nurses? To our teachers? What happens when all of those people get lost? What’s going to be left of this community?

Dudley: Then Palo Alto would just be an enclave of millionaires. What’s wrong with that?

Downing: Here’s what’s wrong. People compare Palo Alto to places like Beverly Hills. If those kinds of communities don’t want to build housing and want to remain exclusively for the rich, honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. Where I have a problem is job centers like Palo Alto saying no to housing. Our police department estimates that our population during the day doubles. All these arguments about, “Are we a suburb? Do we want to stay a suburb? Do we want to be a city?” It’s a little late for that.

We enjoy all the benefits of being in Silicon Valley—and all the tax revenue from the companies that are headquartered here—but at the same time we say we have zero responsibility to house the workers at those same companies.

And it’s just an artificial shortage. It’s not like we’ve magically run out of room. Most of Silicon Valley is just ugly strip malls. It’s one- or two-story buildings. We have tons of space for housing. We’re just choosing not to build it.

Dudley: Lack of affordable housing is an age-old issue for boom cities, but it’s interesting that the innovation capital of the world can’t seem to find a novel way to tackle it.

Downing: The thing is, this isn’t a problem with innovation or technology. It’s not like we suddenly forgot what high-rise apartment buildings look like. This is a political problem.

And, in large part, it’s a problem of political participation. The people who are most affected by the housing crisis are the most disenfranchised. They’re not paying attention to local politics, and for good reason. They’re working three jobs and taking care of their kids. They’re renters, so they move around a lot. Often they’re young people and they don’t understand how local politics works and the impact it has on their day-to-day lives. People look around and think, “Boy, things are expensive.” They don’t realize that they’re expensive because of decisions that the local government makes.