Casualties of Silicon Valley

When I accepted an offer to work in San Francisco South Bay (aka Silicon Valley), I was in for quite a surprise. I lived in East Bay back then. My commute of 35 miles each way didn't seem bad, at least on maps. The reality hit me the first day I drove to work during peak hours. What should have been a 35 minute commute turned into a 2-hour test of patience, and I failed that test miserably.

Besides the obvious frustration, it also impacted my productivity, curtailed work/life balance and not to mention I was contributing to the rampant traffic congestion. I decided to take the shuttle but that was not all that better, especially given the fact that I have motion sickness. So I convinced my husband to move and frankly he didn't need any persuasion after he drove me to work a couple of times and experienced the gridlocked traffic first hand.

Soon after we made the decision, we had lunch with a friend who used to live in Mountain View but had recently moved to Switzerland. He recommended a place called Madera apartments. It turned out that 1 bedroom units there were over $3500 and a 2 bedroom unit was anywhere between $5100 to $6500 per month. I know people compare that to San Francisco and Manhattan, but bear in mind, places like Cupertino and Mountain View are suburban hellholes, not vibrant cities.

With so many tech companies clustered around a small region and with a record high employment, there is a constant inflow of new residents. Clearly the supply can't match the demand and has forced the housing prices to accelerate rapidly. For instance, a report published by City of Palo Alto shows that currently it has more than three jobs for every one housing unit in that area.

This proliferation of housing crisis impacts people at all levels. It is undeniable that despite the unfettered employment growth, the wages for middle class have mostly remained stagnant. Crucial members of our society like teachers, firefighters and nurses are priced out of these neighborhoods. The socioeconomic divide is widening by the day.

That said, it is also true that a lot of people who are fueling the boom can't afford to live around here either. The other day someone posted an article on Facebook about a couple of engineers who are forced to vacate because of greedy landlords. There were so many bitter and colorful comments about how the techies "deserved" it. This is sad in so many ways. Instead of grabbing pitchforks and singling out buses and engineers, I hope everyone realizes that this is a systematic issue across the board and that the engineers are no more to blame for the situation than anyone else who wants or needs to live here.

Redfin recently posted an article about how in 2011, 1 in 7 people in the Bay Area searched for houses outside the Bay Area and now this has increased to 1 in 4. At 7%, Sacramento is one of the most searched cities for housing options. While the median income in the Valley is over $90K compared to $61K in California, one could have a much better life style in Sacramento making $61K compared to a six figure salary around here.

I know several people who either turned down an offer or left Silicon Valley because they can't afford to stay. An average single family house and in most cases townhouses here sells for over a million dollars. If you compare that to Portland or Austin where the median sale price is in mid $300K, the decision becomes rather easy.

This issue is compounded by inexplicable gender inequality. While male workers with a bachelor's degree in Silicon Valley earn a median income of $90K, their female counterparts make $56K. There has been a concentrated effort across most companies to reduce this gap, but we still have a long way to go.

I sincerely believe the local governments can do a lot to curb this crisis. If they could loosen the red tape and get past their development phobia, we could increase the population density. It would make much more sense to have multifamily housing options near train stations instead of worn down houses and dried patches of land. Moreover, denser population makes efficient public transportation options much more viable. And when a suburban area becomes completely overcrowded, it's time to stop developing it as suburbs and start developing it as a city. Talking about underdeveloped sites, Palo Alto city council recently missed out on an opportunity to turn the Fry's site into 221 new housing units. New affordable housing options combined with rent control laws would help everyone, but especially residents with lower incomes.

Tech companies on their part could also do things to relieve this predicament. They need to forego the antiquated idea that people are productive only when they physically show up to work. With the amount of teleconference options and cloud sharing platforms, it's a lot more efficient to have employees work remote than show up frustrated after sitting in the traffic for 2 wasted hours. Personally if I could choose between all the perks the tech companies have to offer versus being able to live in an affordable neighborhood close to my work, I would pick option B any day.

Alternatively, they could open offices outside of Silicon Valley instead of this irrational need for centralization. Either way, they have a moral responsibility to ease this crisis they helped create. Here is another idea: instead of "disrupting" another rather well-functioning business, perhaps we should disrupt the housing market.