As Palo Alto's population of seniors continues to grow, so are residents' anxieties about retiring in their hometown, according to a new survey released this week by the office of City Auditor Harriet Richardson.
The 2018 National Citizen Survey, which is administered by the National Research Center and the auditor's office, found that the percentage of residents who gave Palo Alto high ratings as a "place to retire" plummeted by 11 percentage points between 2017 and 2018, from 51 percent to 40 percent.
The decline is particularly significant given the city's historic rates. Between 2008 and 2012, about two-thirds of the respondents ranked the city "excellent" or "good" as a place to retire, with 68 percent giving Palo Alto one of the two highest scores in 2012.
The survey results are based on 889 responses that the National Citizen Survey received, a 21 percent response rate. The margin of error is 3 percentage points for responses aggregated citywide.
The survey, which the City Council is set to discuss at its Feb. 2 retreat, also indicated that a growing number of residents disapprove of the city's general direction. Only 42 percent of the residents gave the city a rating of "excellent" or "good" when asked about the "overall direction that the city is taking."
While this is only a slight drop from the 45 percent who gave the city high grades in 2017, it is significant drop from 2013, when 54 percent did so (in 2012, the percentage was 59 percent).
Despite these anxieties, most residents still see themselves sticking around Palo Alto for the next five years. In the survey, 78 percent said they are "very" or "somewhat likely" to stay in the city, up from 76 percent in 2017. Even that, however, is lower than the 87 percent who reported that they'd likely stay for five years in 2012 and in 2013.
The results aren't entirely gloomy. The survey shows 84 percent of respondents giving the city "excellent" or "good" ratings when asked about "overall quality of life in Palo Alto" — a rate that places the city far above most other jurisdictions. But while the rate remains high, it dropped by 10 percentage points from 2012, when the rate was 94 percent. In fact, before 2015, the question has consistently received the top two ratings from more than 90 percent of respondents. In 2017, 89 percent gave the city the top two ratings.
Richardson told the Weekly that the most striking thing about the latest survey results is the "continuing downward trend" for questions in the "quality of life" category. Some of these, she noted, relate directly to the issues that council members have been talking about for years.
"I think it's something they (the City Council) should be concerned about," Richardson said. "And I think that right now, as you have a smaller council and a new city manager, it can sort of shape how they look at things over the next year as they set their priorities.
"I know they look at big issues like infrastructure and mobility and housing, and those things to influence the 'quality of life' issues,'" Richardson said.
Indeed, the survey confirms that traffic and housing top the list of problems city residents are worried about. When asked about the one change in the city that could make them happier, 23 percent of the respondents listed traffic and 21 percent cited housing. No other issue received more than 10 percent of responses.
Despite years of talking about the need to solve the city's housing-affordability crisis, Palo Alto's traditionally dismal ratings on "affordable housing" questions only got worse last year. Only 13 percent of the survey takers gave the city high ratings for "variety of housing options" last year, down from 18 percent in 2017. And a mere 5 percent gave the city high grades when asked about "availability of affordable quality housing."
The survey suggests that both renters and homeowners see Palo Alto as, overall, a great place to live (89 percent of renters and 92 percent of homeowners gave the city high marks in this category). And both groups gave their particular neighborhoods high scores: 88 percent for renters and 92 percent for homeowners.
Yet their views diverged when they were asked about Palo Alto as a "place to raise children," with 79 percent of homeowners giving the city the top scores compared to just 61 percent of renters. And when it comes to Palo Alto as a "place to retire," 45 percent of homeowners gave the city high marks while only 29 percent of renters did so.
The residents' responses to the survey's open-ended questions only underscored local worries about traffic and affordable housing. On traffic, numerous residents said they would like to see better synchronization of traffic lights, improved road paving and better planning on "road diets" and other traffic-management projects (several called for the city to return the recently reconfigured section of Ross Road to its former state).
Dozens of residents requested that the council build more affordable housing, with a few calling for rent control. One response urged the city to "figure out affordable-housing options so families can stay here and people don't need to live in RVs/motorhomes or spend almost all income on housing."
Another respondent said that the one action that the council can take to make him or her happier is to "fix the housing situation."
"We're one rent increase away (from) having to move — and we're both professionals," the person states.