By Chris Reed.
Three times in the past 18 months, prominent journalistic organizations have questioned whether Silicon Valley has peaked. Leading off the bad-mouthing was the hometown San Jose Mercury News, which reported in September 2016 that tech growth had slowed in the area compared with other regions and noted that Santa Clara County was down nearly 21,000 tech jobs from its 2000 peak.
That was followed by the London Guardian reporting in May 2017 that start-ups were increasingly likely to fail as the tech venture-capital model struggled, and by Bloomberg News reporting in September 2017 that the high cost of housing was leaving thousands of jobs unfilled.
This month, the Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project, which is headed by the San Jose-based Silicon Valley Leadership Group, released a report on the region that was at least as bleak as the media accounts. It said Silicon Valley was still thriving and a global leader – but that it was unlikely to maintain its status as the U.S. pace-setter in creating tech jobs unless housing construction sharply increased, to end the upward spiral in rent and mortgage payments. A modest tract house can fetch more than $1 million in San Jose and triple that in wealthier suburbs. Rental costs, even in less affluent neighborhoods, are among the nation’s highest.
“The gap between job and housing growth is large and widening,” stated the report, which defined Silicon Valley as including the city-county of San Francisco, Santa Clara County and San Mateo County.
Many of the key findings were based on comparisons of where Silicon Valley stood in 2010 versus 2016. The study noted there was a 29 percent increase in payroll jobs during that span, but only a 4 percent increase in total housing units. As more people were forced to commute to Silicon Valley, the average commute lengthened by 18.9 percent over the six years.
“An average Silicon Valley commuter now spends 72 minutes commuting per day, round trip. This figure has grown marginally since last year and remains second only to the commute time of New York City workers, who spend 74 minutes commuting,” the report noted.
Region’s population fell despite economic boom
Silicon Valley saw another negative landmark in 2016. Despite a booming economy, the report cited U.S. Census Bureau population estimates showing the region had a slight decline in population.
The downbeat report came as no surprise to one former Silicon Valley resident: Santa Cruz attorney Kate Downing, who resigned from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission and moved from the city in 2016 because her family could no longer handle Palo Alto’s housing costs. She told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We’re just not building enough housing. More correctly, cities are not permitting developers to build enough housing. … I think more affordable housing would have kept us in Silicon Valley.”
Lawmakers from the region have had some success in trying to make it easier to build homes in California. State Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, was the lead author of a bill enacted in 2017 that limits cities with bad records on new housing from preventing new projects that meet basic zoning rules.
This year, Weiner and co-authors Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, have introduced Senate Bill 827. With exceptions, it would make it far easier to build small apartment-condo buildings up to 85 feet in height within a half-mile of a transit center.