|Protestors surrounding a private bus transporting workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley. Source: businessinsider.com|
So I haven’t been following this very closely, but I’m catching up on the Google bus controversy in the Bay Area. From what I’ve gathered, a growing number of Silicon Valley workers, from Google and other companies, are finding themselves in San Francisco, some 40 miles from San Jose, Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Mountain View and the other towns that make up the high-tech hub. Workers are moving to the City By The Bay presumably because they’re drawn to the city’s attractiveness, amenities and dynamism, which the Valley apparently lacks (never been there, so this is totally impressionistic).
In response to this shift, Google and others are orchestrating private buses to transport workers from the City to the Valley, and paying the City of San Francisco good money to use its bus stops. This has prompted protests from SF residents decrying the impact of the Valley workers on affordable housing and in altering the character of the city.
From my vantage point some 2,000 miles away, the protests seem misguided. San Francisco hasn’t been affordable for decades, and using this episode as a crusade for affordable housing in the city is quixotic at best. According to Zillow, the median home price in San Francisco in November 2013 was $881,000, and the median rent value was $3,400. Hardly affordable. Interestingly, the same figures for Santa Clara County were $745,000 and $2,300, respectively.
It seems to me that the whole issue is really about the supply of rental housing in the Bay Area. According to the 2012 American Community Survey, Santa Clara County, home of most of the Silicon Valley communities, has about 636,000 housing units. Of those, 53 percent are single-family detached homes, and 47 percent are all other types (single-family attached and all multiple unit structures). In addition, 58 percent of all units are owner-occupied and 42 percent are renter-occupied. In San Francisco, things are a little different. With 377,000 total housing units, only 19 percent are single-family detached homes, and 81 percent are all other types. Moreover, 63 percent are renter-occupied and on 37 percent are owner-occupied.
It appears to me that Silicon Valley workers are making a pragmatic decision to find available rental housing where it exists in an extremely high priced market. It also appears Google and others are seeking to find a solution to this problem. But ultimately, it looks like the loser in this battle might be the Silicon Valley communities.
What are Valley communities doing to address housing supply concerns? Transit concerns? How long will Google be willing to pay the City of San Francisco for using its bus stops? At some point, Silicon Valley companies will be forced to deal with a jobs/housing mismatch never seen before, and decide if they want to be near where the workers are going, or want the workers near where they are. Either way, this could be an existential threat for the Valley communities as they currently are, as a relatively sprawled suburban landscape. They could add housing units and maintain their stature; they could stay the same and quite possibly begin a downward spiral very quickly. I mean, without the high-tech industries, is Silicon Valley really all that different from, say, Stockton or Modesto, two cities that were devastated by the housing boom and crash?
I really don’t know, but I’m asking the question.