At gatherings late last year, people throughout the Peninsula had a chance to express their feelings and experiences relating to — or inflicted by — the "housing crisis" that severely impacts individuals, families and businesses in the three-county Silicon Valley region.
Some impacts are astoundingly positive. A friend recently sold a modest home in north Palo Alto for several million dollars, reaping what he called "The Palo Alto Lottery."
But many thousands of others are driven to the brink of poverty, if not into full-blown poverty, by housing costs. Others simply move away — but are drawn back to the strong job base of Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.
Many nonresidents can't buy in yet still must commute to where the jobs are, spending hours a day in heavy traffic.
For several decades the cost of housing and its side effects have been topics of community discussion, planning and much (verbal) hand-wringing by government officials. In the late 1960s I wrote an article for the former Cry California magazine on "The Palo Alto Experience," detailing how housing costs way back then were forcing people to drive an average of 18 miles a day to get to work. The 2.4-to-1 job-to-housing ratio was a factor. It's gotten worse.
From today's perspective, the "crisis" has become acute. Discussions about housing have become increasingly intense, especially as communities wrestle with what might be done to alleviate the problem. Virtually no one uses the word "solve."
Last November, nonprofit and neighborhood groups co-sponsored community-discussion forums about the price of homes and apartment rents. People from many income levels, job types and family situations met in varying-sized groups to share their stories about housing hardships and how they handle, or struggle, with them.
The umbrella co-sponsor was Joint Venture Silicon Valley, an industry-based group that has assumed responsibility for monitoring a wide area of social and economic trends, under the leadership of CEO Russell Hancock and his predecessor, former state Senator Becky Morgan.
The group publishes an annual "Index" of conditions and trends in the Silicon Valley region. It publishes periodic updates on the economy.
Several years back, Hancock warned of a "shrinking middle class" in Silicon Valley. At one housing-discussion group in Palo Alto, held at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in south Palo Alto, the moderator was Margaret "Peggy" Jensen, deputy county manager for San Mateo County. A half-dozen participants recounted their predicaments and strategies.
Jensen noted at the outset that every workday some 200,000 cars move into and out of San Mateo County — more than four times the number driven to a ball game at 3Com Park. Side effects include use of fuel, pollution and cost — financial and personal.
A Bay Area Council poll last year found that 40 percent of those who responded said they "may leave the Bay Area" entirely because of the cost of housing and other factors, she indicated.
Past land-use decisions are significant, she noted. About 75 percent of San Mateo County land is dedicated to agriculture or open space or is limited by the steep slopes on both sides of Skyline Ridge. Both agriculture and open space have their fiercely dedicated proponents who would fight to preserve those lands.
On the flatlands, about two-thirds of the houses are single-family dwellings, and Peninsula communities have consistently lowered height limits of apartment or condominium buildings.
Local funding to build "affordable housing" largely dried up when the state eliminated redevelopment agencies (in early 2012), she added. To backfill the loss, San Mateo County voters approved a bond measure for such housing.
Yet even with such funding the number of units that would be possible to build would satisfy just a fraction of the demand for either the workforce or overall, for any age or occupational group.
One glimmer of optimism arises from a surge of interest in building below-market-rate housing by entrepreneurs, according to an article by Marisa Kendall, a reporter for the Bay Area News Group who covers venture capital and startups.
"An emerging group of local entrepreneurs is taking up arms against the sky-high cost of living in the Bay Area, hoping to end once and for all the housing crisis crippling the region," she wrote in a recent article. "These founders, intent on disrupting the housing market and bringing down costs, are stepping in as government officials and nonprofits struggle with the enormity of the problem."
A Joint Venture report last July on "The Peninsula Economy" reached four conclusions: (1) job growth has slowed; (2) unemployment rates are low; (3) growth in the labor force has stopped; and (4) the housing shortage remains, with record rents and prices. Yet some large companies, such as Google, have announced major job expansions.
Hancock is known for his optimism about what he calls the amazing "phenomenon" of the Silicon Valley economy of risk and innovation and challenge-solving abilities. But he acknowledges that he's unsure about what can be done about the housing crisis.
"I'm an optimist by nature, so it pains me to find myself feeling pessimistic about housing in our region. But it's hard to see a solution," he wrote in an email response to my question about "solving the housing crisis."
"We're highly developed already; people are opposed to density; they're also opposed to vertical developments; and it means that we're nowhere close to providing the kind of supply that can meet our burgeoning demand. I don't know what can change it."
Yet there is a change in "the tenor and tone" of the discussion, he said. "People are referring to this now as a crisis — 'the housing crisis.' That has come into common parlance."
The November dialogues "have made more people aware and willing to advocate for density in the appropriate places," meaning "elected officials will feel more support" when facing local opposition.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at [email protected]