The housing crisis in our communities is both an economic challenge and a threat to sustainability. It is defined by the rapid escalation of home prices and rents; it displaces longtime residents; it drives urban sprawl; and it is rooted in the imbalanced growth of jobs without adequate housing for our community.
No single city or company can solve these problems, but together we can establish goals to manage and address an increasingly dire situation. The challenges of housing affordability and environmental sustainability share a common set of answers.
We are losing not only the people who mow our lawns and serve our food, teach our children and bandage our wounds. The housing crisis is forcing out many of the people who lead our PTAs, serve on city commissions, and bring the economic, cultural and ethnic diversity that makes the Bay Area such an exciting place to live.
A community is not sustainable if employees and family members are forced to drive great distances through grueling commutes to remain employed or connected. Excessive automotive commuting wastes time and energy, and it is responsible for a strong majority of greenhouse gas emissions from our area. As new regulations implement changes in the California Environmental Quality Act, it will be easier to consider vehicle miles traveled in major development decisions. Environmental studies will show that the simplest way to reduce vehicle miles traveled is to locate housing near jobs.
Urban sprawl here has gone beyond suburban. Demonstrated by jam-packed highways crossing the mountains that encircle the Bay Area, residential development serving our workforce continues to displace farmland, demands more expensive infrastructure investments, and gobbles up more water and energy than compact development in established communities. Forcing people to commute to our cities from Tracy, Los Banos or Santa Cruz isn't just wearying for them. It's bad for the planet.
Without adequate housing, our communities cannot sustain themselves. That is, the housing shortage makes it difficult for people who grew up in this area to raise families here. While some young families may prefer to move elsewhere to own a quarter-acre, the evidence is that more of them would prefer culturally vibrant, safe, well-designed urban villages near employment, good schools and, in many cases, near their extended families. We have many retired people living here whose quality of life is diminished by the distance they live from their grandchildren.
A common goal
The job-rich communities of Silicon Valley need to come together to establish a simple common goal: We will do what we can to keep the jobs-housing imbalance from getting worse. That is, as employment continues to increase, we should plan for, and ensure, the development of housing in quantities that serve that growing workforce. We don't expect everyone to live and work in the same city, but we want to make it easier for people to live near where they work. We can make it easier for employees and our own younger generations to find housing that works for them, without their being forced far away, and without their displacing others in bidding wars.
New housing should be built near centers of employment, shopping and transit. New apartments, condos and townhouses should be built where office parks now sprawl or surface parking lots blight our downtowns. There is still land available to build medium-density housing without damaging the character of existing single-family neighborhoods. Infill development is called "smart growth" because it reduces the demand for energy, water and transportation to serve the same number of people. This is why environmental groups such as the Sierra Club support infill over urban sprawl.
As Mountain View is planning in its North Bayshore Planning Area, new homes should be accompanied by parks, stores, restaurants, services, schools/daycare and transit. Complexes should be designed to accommodate ride-sharing, delivery and bicycling. Designed right, "car-light" development can actually reduce traffic. With a robust portion of affordable units, we can serve the mix of seniors, families and workers that our communities need.
Many people fear the dust, noise and traffic diversion associated with new construction, but those impacts don't have to be part of the package. Building here is so desirable that our local governments have the authority to demand the highest-quality construction techniques to minimize neighborhood and environmental impacts.
We also have the ability to build more subsidized housing, both by including below-market-rate units in large market-rate developments and by funding dedicated affordable housing. Mountain View has shown that new, properly located projects serving families, veterans, low-income workers, seniors, and even the developmentally disabled can blend well into surrounding neighborhoods. All of our communities have an opportunity to renew our historic dedication to affordable housing options.
People elsewhere wish they had the economic dynamism and technical creativity of Silicon Valley, not realizing that we are falling victim to our own success. The San Francisco Peninsula no longer resembles the Valley of the Heart's Delight. Indeed, our communities are very different than they were a few decades ago. Change is inevitable, but through careful planning we can preserve our quality of life, protect the environment, welcome newcomers and retain those who have been here for years. Our diverse professionals, service workers, families and retirees aren't just the envy of the world; they are the heart of our communities.