Apparently I didn’t just hallucinate that things started getting worse on transit in 2012. I knew Mountain View was the third-busiest Caltrain station behind only San Francisco and San Jose, but this article provided a truly shocking nugget: from 2012 to 2015, MV added 17,921 jobs and only 779 housing units.
That is astonishing. Even assuming that those jobs represent single individuals – without spouse or children or so much as a pet – that’s still almost 18,000 jobs in a city with a census population of 74,000 in 2010. Even extrapolating from Wikipedia’s approximate 77,000 figure in 2013, that gets you to about 81K today. And if you assume 250 housing units a year for population growth of 1000 a year, that’s almost keeping up if you assume the old saw about the married couple and 2.4 kids.
This article is largely about how Mountain View is trying to come up with some accommodation for people who live in RVs because there’s no housing stock in Mountain View, and how some homeowners are pushing back on that for fear of all the usual stuff – crime, property values, blah blah blah. The problem is, per that article, Mountain View is actually ahead of the forecast pace for home construction (unlike, say, Palo Alto or Cupertino, always far more NIMBY historically). Personally, if you can find a space to legally park your RV for three days at a time (and there aren’t a lot of places in town), I say giddy up, you’ve found a way to hang on and God bless ya. It beats paying for houses that have doubled in price in the last ten years (although you can’t sell unless you’re moving to Tennessee, because you won’t be able to turn around and buy something).
Then again, maybe the housing prices wouldn’t have doubled in ten years had they built some more housing. There are a ton of office buildings that went up in proximity to Moffett Field, there’s a new Samsung building right on the border with Sunnyvale that has its own shuttle running that way in the mornings, there was a completely new building for Zynga (that was smart). Maybe fewer of those and more living quarters next time. And while there legitimately is a hell of a lot of housing construction happening in Mountain View – drive down El Camino Real from San Antonio to Castro and take a look – it all tends to be of the luxury apartment variety, never over 4 stories tall, or else single-family homes on sliver lots whose walls couldn’t fit a playing card between them. No one is building anything affordable – possibly because you can’t afford to buy the land itself and then develop on it for cheaper than requires “luxury apartments” to make back the investment. This is a problem, not least because of all the soft-story apartments down California Street that will pancake when the big one comes – they represent the closest thing to affordable housing in the city now.
But part of the problem may be that an awful lot of these jobs seem to have been created for people who would rather be living in SoMa and the Mission and coming down on the Google bus. (Or the Caltrain, by my experience, and not one of them knows to walk their bike on the VTA platform going home in the evening.) That’s as may be, but the thought that comes to my mind is – how are you meant to add housing equivalent to 20% of your population in three years? Should a town of 75,000 people be obligated to throw up half a dozen skyscraper apartment towers just so people can live close to work, when the tenth largest city in America is literally eleven miles away and there’s a commuter train and a light rail AND multiple bus lines to get you from one downtown to the other?
That’s the problem of Silicon Valley. It’s all well and good that you have San Francisco at one end and San Jose at the other, but in between, you have literally a million and a half people – more than either of those towns – packing into a long sprawl of what was once suburban. You can still look at the Caltrain stations and see that many if not most of them are oriented for a world of people going up to the city in the morning and coming home in the evening, when I strongly suspect the non-sports traffic is starting to tip the other direction most days. The big three cities of the Bay Area have a fourth squashed in between, disguised as suburbia and populated by a lot of folks who are not necessarily NIMBYists but who specifically chose suburbia over those three cities, and don’t see why their particular town of 80,000 or so has to be enlarged to accommodate people who don’t want to commute a dozen miles. (Not to deny that Caltrain hasn’t got what it takes to accommodate its growth in ridership.)
But every other town (almost) covers this by sprawling even further – and the Peninsula doesn’t have any place left to sprawl, and hasn’t had for decades between the bay, the mountains and the cities at either end. And yet, everyone still has to establish their company here, and everyone has to get bigger here, and pretty soon you have Google dominating Mountain View in a way that simply didn’t happen with Fairchild Semiconductor or Silicon Graphics or Adobe or Netscape. The case of Adobe is most instructive for me: they got big and what did they do? They moved to San Jose. Netscape got huge, sold out to AOL, and decamped to Northern Virginia. While locating here gives you access to ready supplies of dumb money from Sand Hill Road or Y Combinator and dumber dropouts from CS50 at Stanford, it’s possible to start other companies elsewhere. Hell, Amazon is still Seattle first (although their local presence is starting to get swole) and apps like Snapchat or Citymapper do fine despite running out of Los Angeles or London.
It’s mind-blowing that the Internet was supposed to allow anyone in the world to do anything from anywhere, but for some reason you must still have everyone in physical proximity in Mountain View. And yet.