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By Diana Diamond

Let’s reconsider our “jobs-housing imbalance” problem

Uploaded: Mar 7, 2019

The headline in The Mercury News on Thursday was indeed alarming: “Palo Alto at nearly 3 times the size?” If Senate Bill 50 were to become law, which is a distinct possibility, the consequences for this city could be dramatic – up to 90,000 additional cars, some 46,000 new multi-story apartment buildings and homes around transit areas, and a city that no longer would be suburban in character. That was the conclusion of a new study by Embarcadero Institute, a nonprofit funded by foundations and private donors.

Critics say that the report is an extreme scenario that is misleading and may never happen. The numbers may be off and/or may not materialize until 20 or 30 years, but, if the bill is passed, Palo Alto will definitely grow – and grow.

Mayor Eric Filseth voiced his deep concerns over the bill sponsored by state Sen. Scott Weiner in his State of the City speech last week. Good for him!

Yes, there is a shortage of housing in the Bay Area, and that includes Palo Alto, but all this is premised on a 40-year-old concept that there is a jobs-housing imbalance problem that we need to solve. By the way, Palo Alto has, been contributing to the imbalance -- the city has, since 2005, approved from 220,000 to 230,000 square feet of downtown commercial space as compared to only 65,000 square feet added in the previous 15 years. “Commercial” results in more jobs.

It’s time to rethink the problem, and maybe get rid of the way officials are trying to solve the “jobs-housing imbalance” problem.

As I recall, that phrase was coined in the mid-1970s, and adopted by some forward-thinking groups and urban planners as a possible solution to our area’s traffic and housing problems. But the proposed solution is what is now causing our problems.

The solution task was given to ABAG, the Association of Bay Area Governments, a state organization since 1961. Its board of directors consists of elected officials, primarily city council members, from a variety of the 101 cities in the nine-county Bay Area. Not all cities are represented; terms rotate. So there is little the public can do to change the direction of ABAG’s activities, since the board members are not independently elected to ABAG.

ABAG officials decided that each city not only is responsible for the imbalance in their communities, but also is mandated to try to achieve a balance between jobs and housing. Sounds fine on paper, but it doesn’t work.

Take Palo Alto, which has to achieve this balance. This city is one of the biggest employers in the state – it has Stanford University and its two hospitals, it has the Stanford Research Park filled with corporate headquarters of major companies like SAP, and is a blossoming home for numerous start-ups, including Facebook, which eventually ran out of space in Palo Alto and relocated to Menlo Park.

ABAG has declared that since so many jobs of the above entities are located in Palo Alto, the city is responsible for providing housing to eliminate the imbalance. That is the fallacy, and the solution is nonsensical.

Neighboring Atherton doesn’t have to provide housing because it has few if any jobs and no imbalance. But Palo Alto’s big employers have thousands of people. These corporations and institutions do not just serve Palo Alto, which ABAG seems to presume; they serve a huge area.

ABAG’s demands have softened over the years because there finally is recognition Palo Alto can never provide enough housing – we simply don’t have the space.

But if SB 50 passes, the housing is bound to increase because the state will override the city’s density rules, parking requirements and height limits. The bill takes away local control over what is built here and instead requires four-story apartments near train stations and bus stops and possibly all over town.

That is why Filseth and others are so concerned about this bill. They – and me -- don’t want the state dictating what kind of town we must have. Our suburban community would fade away; a high-rise city would be the result.

This jobs-housing imbalance is not a national program; its origin is embedded in the Bay Area. But take other cities – New York, for example. Millions of people work there, but they live outside the city – in Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx counties, in nearby New Jersey. New York is the job center; the suburbs are the housing providers.

Ditto for Chicago and many other cities.

So I think it is time to get rid of this jobs-housing imbalance concept, and come up with new ideas. Right now, many local cities simply don’t have the room to provide thousands of new houses that would dramatically affect the character of their communities. Maybe it’s time for local corporations to consider keeping their headquarters in the area but then relocating their work force to other parts of the state or to other states. I’m sure the opportunities for more jobs in, say, Nevada or Idaho or Tennessee would be welcomed. Maybe we should tackle the imbalance as a regional, not a city problem. Perhaps tax laws need to be changed so that not only the job-filled cities make money, but that there are also financial incentives for communities to be housing oriented.

Let’s think outside of this imbalanced box.