The bigger cities up and down the Peninsula are approving large developments of office space and biotech research almost daily which will bring thousands of new jobs into the county in the next 10 years while not addressing the need for new housing to serve all those new employees. I’m sure those new employees, like the rest of us, would like to find an affordable home relatively close to their work, but that is no longer possible.
Why is that so? Simply because more people are looking for housing than is available on the market, and when demand is high and supply is low, prices rise. This may be fine for those who already own their own home, and for families who make $250,000 or more per year who can afford a million dollar plus “home of their dreams,” but the rest are being left out. That includes most of the essential workers who make a city run. They are registered nurses, firefighters, school teachers, store clerks, restaurant staff, janitors and road builders. They staff nursing homes and child care facilities, and provide in-home elder care, along with many other chores that undergird a city’s physical and social infrastructure.
And it’s not just the number of jobs per housing unit that’s the problem, but also the “jobs to housing fit.” This means that the majority of homes within the city are not affordable to the majority of employees who work in the city, or conversely, the jobs in the city do not pay enough to cover the cost of housing in the city. An example of this is the city of San Carlos. It currently has a numerically good jobs to housing ratio, but close to 90% of the residents commute out of the city every day to jobs that pay enough to cover the high cost of housing in San Carlos, and 90% of the people who work in the city commute in because they can’t afford a home in the city where they work. This means more traffic congestion, more air pollution, higher worker costs, less time with family, and less time participating in community recreational activities and events. This is not the formula for a truly sustainable community.
The benefits of a healthy jobs-to-housing fit include:
• Expanded housing choices and availability among all income groups which means less income inequality citywide;
• A better work-life balance and more community participation;
• Reduced driving time, less congestion, less pollution; and
• Lower costs to workers and businesses.
To use another city as an example, Redwood City’s Planning Department website shows 24 significant office developments in the pipeline plus a number of smaller office developments that are currently in the application stage, approved, or actually built. These 24 large developments alone equal approximately 9,205,000 square feet which translates into 46,025 jobs and the need for about 23,000 new homes.
Redwood City has approved a lot of housing in the past few years and its current plan to add 6,882 units in the next eight years seems like a lot, but is totally inadequate to meet the housing need that will be generated by all the new commercial developments in the pipeline. Most of the new housing developments have been primarily market-rate units which are unaffordable to lower- and middle-income workers. The city has nowhere near the number of truly affordable units in the pipeline needed to support its essential workers.
Redwood City is not alone in its unsustainable planning practices. I could do a similar analysis of a least 10 other San Mateo County cities that are just as deficient.
Bottom line. It’s time for all the cities to stop ignoring the problems the last 20 or more years of unbalanced planning has wrought (unaffordable housing, increased traffic, social stress and income inequality) and move to a more sustainable approach to physical and social planning. Start by limiting the number and scale of new commercial developments in each city until there is enough new housing planned to accommodate the number of new workers that will be employed. That would be a great step in the right direction.
David Crabbe is an architect who both works and lives in San Carlos.