For the past two years, Kate Downing has been one of Palo Alto's most passionate advocates for building more affordable housing.
As one of the founding members of the citizens group Palo Alto Forward and a member of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission, she also has been a vehement critic of the city's recent tilt toward slow-growth policies, and its failure to address a housing shortage that many in the community and some on the City Council believe has reached a crisis level.
For Downing, the problem hits literally close to home. Two weeks ago, she announced that her family is leaving Palo Alto -- driven out by the high housing prices. And on Tuesday night, she penned a public letter of resignation, which she posted on Medium, that further explains her decision to leave and takes the council to task for its failure to act on this problem, despite strong community support for building more housing.
"Time and again, I've seen dozens of people come to both Commission meetings and Council meetings asking Council to make housing its top priority," Downing wrote. "The City Council received over 1,000 signatures from Palo Alto residents asking for the same. In the annual Our Palo Alto survey, it is the top issue cited by residents.
"This council has ignored the majority of residents and has chartered a course for the next 15 years of this city's development, which substantially continues the same job-housing imbalance this community has been suffering from for some time now: more offices, a nominal amount of housing, which the Council is already laying the groundwork to tax out of existence, lip service to preserving retail that simply has no reason to keep serving the average Joe when the city is only available to Joe Millionaires."
In her resignation letter, Downing pointed to the city's difficulties in filling job openings in the Palo Alto Police Department and renewing contracts with the local teachers because of the "astronomical" cost of housing, not just in Palo Alto but "many miles in each direction."
It is clear, she wrote, that "if professionals like me cannot raise a family here, then all of our teachers, first responders, and service workers are in dire straits."
Downing herself is facing similar challenges, despite the fact that she is a corporate attorney and her husband is a software engineer at Palantir. For several years, they have been renting a home in the Ventura neighborhood. Now, they are preparing to move to Santa Cruz.
In her resignation letter, Downing wrote that "After many years of trying to make it work in Palo Alto, my husband and I cannot see a way to stay in Palo Alto and raise a family here."
"We rent our current home with another couple for $6,200 a month; if 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," Downing wrote. "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 also noted that over the last five years, she'd seen dozens of her friends leave Palo Alto and, in some cases, the Bay Area. She also said that she has seen friends from other states get job offers in Palo Alto and then turn them down whey they started to look at the price of housing.
"I struggle to think what Palo Alto will become and what it will represent 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," Downing wrote. "If things keep going as they are, yes, Palo Alto's streets will look just as they did decades ago, but its inhabitants, spirit, and sense of community will be unrecognizable.
"A once thriving city will turn into a hollowed out museum. We should take care to remember that Palo Alto is famous the world over for its residents’ accomplishments, but none of those people would be able to live in Palo Alto were they starting out today," she wrote.
Downing is hardly alone in urging the council to act with more urgency on promoting affordable housing. In March, more than 1,000 residents, including numerous former mayors and planning commissioners, signed a petition spearheaded by Palo Alto Forward that urged the council to do more to address this topic.
"The cost of living in Palo Alto has skyrocketed. As a result, we are seeing long-time neighbors move because they can no longer afford the rent," the petition stated. "It is not unusual for Palo Alto workers to commute in from areas as far as Stockton, Gilroy and Tracy, putting severe strain on our roads and our climate. We are on the path to being a city composed only of long-time landowners and wealthy newcomers. This situation is the result of city policies that have discouraged new housing while encouraging more office space."
Recent surveys also suggest that residents are growing increasingly anxious about getting priced out of Palo Alto. In the city's annual survey, the number of people who gave Palo Alto good grades for "variety of housing options” dropped from 27 percent in 2014 to 20 percent in 2015, while the percentage of people who ranked the city as a good or excellent place to retire dropped from 60 percent to 52 percent between 2014 and 2015 (in 2006, it was 68 percent).
Local concerns about housing were also highlighted in a poll that the city commissioned last spring, when it was considering whether to proceed with a business tax to address traffic congestion. The poll showed 76 percent of the respondents listing "cost of housing" as an "extremely serious" or "very serious" problem, a higher percentage than any other issue (the drought and traffic congestion scored second and third, with 65 percent and 53 percent, respectively).
Downing's letter comes at a particularly sensitive time for local politics. The city is about to hold its first City Council election since the slow-growth "residentialist" camp won the council majority in 2014 and four of the council's nine seats will be up for grabs.
Several candidates jumping into the race, including current planning commission Chair Adrian Fine, Human Relations Commission Chair Greer Stone and technology executive Michelle Kraus (all of whom are renters) have vowed to make creation of more housing options a priority if elected.