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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Housing in Palo Alto

Currently, a lot of community leaders are furious at the Association of Bay Area Governments which expects Palo Alto to add 3700 units of housing over the next five or so years. The fact that other communities are bearing the cost of housing while Palo Alto enjoys the revenues of a jobs-housing imbalance doesn't carry any weight locally. The fact that we are contributing heavily to global warming by requiring so many workers to commute in has not yet caused an outcry. The fact that housing sprawl to cheaper areas keeps gobbling up open space and farmland is a total yawn. In our recent City Council election, none of the 11 candidates talked up "smart growth", let alone high density housing along transportation corridors.

In beautiful Palo Alto, most neighborhood leaders are very vocal against housing developments, especially anything high density. We don't have the room. We don't want more cars on our already congested roads. Our schools can't handle more kids per classroom. High density housing (30 units per acre) doesn't fit in architecturally with the rest of the neighborhood. If any space along a transit line becomes available, we should bring in more retail outlets because that brings more sales tax revenues. Housing brings additional expenses (read taxes and fees) what with police, fire, and utilities services to provide. It's probably a pretty familiar refrain in communities across the country.

But in Palo Alto, housing values have gone up more than almost anywhere in the world. A house that sold in the 20 thousands in the early 70's is now worth well over a million dollars. (Median cost in 1970 was $33K and in 2006 it was $1.3 million dollars) In most cases they are bought by wealthy young couples who knock them down and build a much bigger place in its stead. Over the past 35 years, Palo Alto has become a financially gated community. Our kids can't come back and live here unless they become corporate or finance managers like many of their parents.
A digression:


This is what the house looked like that I rented with my kids for 13 years. (It's actually our old neighbors' house, but exact same model.)


This is the new house going up and replacing our old 950 sq ft. rental.


This is the new house next to my old neighbors' house. This "Mutt and Jeff" effect is a common sight througout Palo Alto.

Every day an army of teachers, nurses, waiters, clerks, nannies, gardeners, utility workers, police, and non-profit employees commute in and out of town to make everything function for the successful residents. The Palo Alto population balloons up to 90,000 in the daytime, even as many of the 60,000 residents fan out among the familiar corporations of the Silicon Valley.

Maybe the growing concern about global warming will wake people up to see that our "neighborhoods" extend far beyond Palo Alto and we need to care about the region and the planet. It would not be a bad thing at all if the baker's kid attended the same school as the Google manager's kid.

We'll see how the political battle plays out this Spring and Summer as the City updates its housing element (that dictates how much housing the city is prepared to develop) as required by the state.

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