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Former planning commissioner says Palo Alto has worst housing policy in U.S.

“They think apartments are for people on welfare.”

Last week, Palo Alto planning commissioner Kate Vershov Downing stepped down, penning a now-famous letter to colleagues (posted on Medium) explaining that she was moving to Santa Cruz because she simply couldn’t afford Palo Alto anymore.

Downing, a 31-year-old lawyer who moved to Palo Alto from Sunnyvale five years ago (she’s originally from the East Coast by way of immigration from Russia), said she and her husband were tired of splitting a house with roommates to the tune of $6,500/month for their share. She also alleged that the city ignores the public’s demand for more housing.

To her surprise, Downing’s letter made national headlines. Amid all of the furor, we sat down to talk to her about the realities of housing in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Curbed SF: Was there a last straw that made you decide to pack up and go?

Kate Vershov Downing: No last straw, we just found a house in Santa Cruz that we liked. It’s more for personal reasons, rather than being a political thing. I didn’t think this would become a big issue. I thought our local paper would write about it and that’s as far as it would go.

Curbed: What do you think people might not understand about how policy works in a city like Palo Alto?

Downing: A lot of people have no idea what the City Council actually does. They assume that it’s all market forces and supply and demand at work on housing, but there’s an entire body that controls what gets built and how much and where it will be and ultimately what your rent is. The few people who show up to City Council, it’s like Amazon reviews: You come if you’re really happy or really upset. People not having an issue don’t come at all.

So there’s maybe 1,000 people who pay attention to city government. If you’ve lived here for 30 years, you probably know all 1,000 of those people. A minority of wealthy homeowners can create a network to get candidates elected very easily.

Curbed: What about people argue that a city like Palo Alto just can’t ever build enough housing to really satisfy demand?

Downing: The city could definitely do its part. This is a region-wide problem of cities adding a lot of jobs and not a lot of housing, but Palo Alto is the extreme case. It’s the most out of whack housing policy of any city in the country. Most of Palo Alto is single-story, even our downtown, even right next to Caltrain.

And I think it’s a misconception that you can never build up to demand. We have a pretty good idea what demand is: Every day, the effective population of the city doubles from the number of people who come in just for work. That tells us something about how much housing we need. It’s not infinite.

Curbed: Right, but people will argue things like transit infrastructure, water use—

Downing: The exact same people who complain about in-fill housing will show up to complain when you want to expand transit. The exact same people. We had people show up to meetings to say that bike paths represent urban plight. A green painted bike path is too much for them. We can’t run a city just on a policy of saying no to everything, but that’s what’s happening.

Curbed: But this is a democracy, there’s always somebody doesn‘t like something. If that’s a culture of opposition, then every city has one.

Downing: These people will say anything, but they don’t really care about congestion or water use. They care about keeping the town looking exactly the way it is. These are people who view suburbia as the ideal and they look at urbanization as the death of the American Dream. They think public transit is for the poor and apartments are for people on welfare.

Curbed: You allege that all of these policy objections are just a cover for a personal agenda?

Downing: Well, we know that.

Curbed: I don’t know that?

Downing: They’ll say: "We don’t want this place to grow." The vast majority of Palo Alto is zoned for single family detached homes with the minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet. Only something like three percent of the city is zoned for any sort of multi-family use. For most places it’s illegal to build a duplex.

Curbed: Really? Why? There must be a rationale?

Downing: It’s a culture war. Palo Alto was mostly built out in the 1950s and 1960s. Then when Silicon Valley started up, they clashed with existing citizens. Because the people living here thought this was all perfect and proper; they thought everyone should aspire to a town just like this.

Curbed: What’s wrong with that?

Downing: Look, a place like Beverly Hills can be as exclusive as it wants. There's nothing out there except homes for the idle rich, and that’s fine for them, I don't care. But Palo Alto made a decision to build millions of square feet of office space. That was an active decision, and putting housing where you put jobs is just smart policy. Once you decide to become a jobs center, I care.

Curbed: Your resignation said that to buy the house you were renting would cost $2.7 million. A lot of people ask, why not buy a cheaper place instead? There are some cheaper places.

Downing: Sure, we could move half an hour away. But if I can afford to move half an hour away to San Mateo, what happens to the people who have to move out of San Mateo?

Curbed: I don’t mean half an hour away, I mean right in Palo Alto. There are cheaper homes. Not very cheap, but not $2.7 million either?.

Downing: Well, that comment about the price of the house was really just an anchor for reference. But even if I found a cheaper home, even $2 million is more than I have to spend, and anything less than that is usually a project. Remember, you can’t take out a loan for construction. And the point is, when the baby boomers came out here, this used to be a middle class area. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Curbed: Do people have a right to live in whatever city they want?

Downing: I wouldn’t say it’s a right to live in Palo Alto, like a human right. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have smart policy, and smart policy is building housing near jobs. That’s the policy that’s going to make us economically healthier. Let me be clear: This isn’t sour grapes. I’m moving to Santa Cruz, one of the most beautiful places in the world, what do I have to be sour about? But what about people who don’t have the privilege of moving?

Curbed: You told the Stanford Political Journal that there’s no incentive for cities to build housing. Explain more what you mean by that?

Downing: Thanks to Prop 13, cities aren’t making much off of residential housing. There’s an incentive to build anything but more housing. And a city council controlled by wealthy homeowners don’t want new housing bringing down their property values. The state needs to put some teeth in its housing goals. These cities laugh at the state’s housing markers. I think we hit something like 12 percent of our goal for low income residents, and that state hasn’t sent so much as a reprimand letter. There’s no stick.

Note: In the interest of fairness, Curbed SF is also reaching out to every member of the Palo Alto City Council to allow them to respond. If council members comment, we’ll let you know.