Local Politics Is the Reason Your Suburb Is Still So Segregated
Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University, is the poster child for this
In the time since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, many Americans have gotten their first up-close look at local government where they live. For most who care about racial justice and the structural inequities in American society, it is likely an ugly look, where the forces of the status quo are fully on display and any steps towards reform are superficial and tepid. If you get the distinct sense that you aren’t particularly welcome and that most of the folks in power secretly wish you would leave them alone, you are probably not wrong.
As just one example, seven miles west of Portland, Oregon lies the suburb of Beaverton, which is home to the world headquarters for Nike and which is 64% white and just 2% Black. Thanks to Covid, Beaverton has had to cut their overall city budget for the next fiscal year but in that process completely spared their police department, which is actually seeing a budget increase of $2.3 million.
As you can imagine, young activists concerned about police violence are not pleased. Six months’ worth of planned “community listening sessions” seem unlikely to lead to substantial further reform, and in the words of activist Pedro Evenezer, “They're trying to ride the wave until everything dies down, because that's what has happened in the past. We can't even compromise with them because they're so out of touch. Any 'compromise' would be a loss."
Whatever your thoughts on particular approaches to police reform, if you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans, particularly white Americans, now thinking a lot more critically about issues of race and equity in our society, getting engaged in your local politics is essential to making where you live a more just community. Sadly, just like the equity activists in Beaverton, you’ll be shocked at how regressive, exclusionary, and frequently racist the political decision-making is in your community — even in places that overwhelmingly vote blue.
Let’s look at why that is and why a place like Palo Alto, California, where 82% of residents voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, can still be so backwards on matters of equity.
Palo Alto, California — one of the most exclusionary places on the planet
Despite being the home of Stanford University and the headquarters for prominent technology companies like Hewlett-Packard and Tesla, every year or two, Palo Alto makes national headlines for taking the problems of wealthy, primarily-white suburbs and cranking them up to 11:
Yet, Palo Alto remains one of the most desirable places to live in America. Its moderate climate means it never gets too hot or too cold; its two public high schools are both ranked in the top 250 nationwide; and its location in the heart of Silicon Valley means that scores of high-paying tech jobs are just a short commute away.
Palo Alto High School: A public school where the only tuition is a Palo Alto mortgage.
I wrote in my last piece, Your Suburb Has Very Few Black Residents on Purpose, about my hometown of Pittsford, New York — known as the “nicest” suburb in the Rochester, NY area and where access to the primarily-white community is dictated by being able to afford a home that is relatively expensive for the region, about $300,000. But Pittsford looks like a model of socioeconomic inclusivity when compared to Palo Alto, where the median home is literally ten times more expensive, a whopping $3.1 million.
Higher Bay Area salaries alone won’t explain this: median household income in Santa Clara County ($116k), where Palo Alto is situated, is only about twice as high as Rochester’s ($57k). Instead, Palo Alto has been perhaps the most successful suburb in the nation at executing a common economic development strategy: benefiting from an enormous number of nearby jobs (often within its own borders) while building as few homes as possible.
In fact, aside from tiny Colma (1,800 residents), Palo Alto currently has the most egregious ratio of jobs to homes (3.5) in the entire San Francisco Bay Area, a region infamous for its housing shortage:
This economic development strategy has been so successful that an empty 1/4-acre lot in the historic Old Palo Alto neighborhood hit the market last year for $9 million. Whatever plutocrat can manage to buy it will be allowed to build a single 6,000-square foot home on the land, and in exchange, it will then be worth $15-20 million. (That’s not even close to the most expensive home in Palo Alto, btw.)
This is messed up. Obviously. In a normal economic world when land is worth $36 million per acre, the market would say, “Wow, there is a lot of demand for people to live here. Instead of low-density detached single-family homes, we should start building bungalow courts, townhomes, condos, and apartments so more people can live in this desirable area.”
In fact, Palo Alto historically HAS done this. Here is a “mansion apartment” built in 1903 three blocks away from the city’s main drag, University Ave., and just two doors down from single-family homes:
Instead of one obscenely wealthy family living in such a prime location, 7 households can live in this jobs-rich, opportunity-rich area. Unfortunately, homes like this one are rarely built in Palo Alto these days, because they have been made illegal almost everywhere in the city.
Palo Alto’s restrictive zoning, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has essentially guaranteed that the city is now affordable only to multi-millionaire families. By extension, the city has also disproportionately excluded Black and Latinx households who have been systematically deprived of the opportunity to build intergenerational housing wealth and are consistently underrepresented in the region’s tech industry.
The best analogy for Palo Alto in 2020 is something like a European medieval court. The only ways to be part of that community is to inherit a home from your parents, which you will eventually pass onto your own children, or if you and your spouse are from outside the Palo Alto landed gentry, you may be able to join the community by becoming outrageously successful merchants (aka tech and finance executives). For anyone else, the city is pretty much off-limits.
Achieving this extreme version of economic and racial exclusion was not easy, but Palo Alto has the one force more powerful than the market on its side: local politics.
“Sensible Zoning” in Palo Alto
The current state of Palo Alto is the result of decades of decisions by political leaders, but the present era of local politics is fairly representative of why the city has become as racially and economically segregated as it has. It all starts with a single affordable housing development for seniors.
In 2013, an affordable housing developer, Palo Alto Housing Corporation — which despite the name is actually a nonprofit — proposed to build 60 affordable senior units and 12 market-rate single-family homes on the site of the Maybell Orchards. This apricot orchard, with about 100 trees, was a remnant left over from when Silicon Valley was primarily farmland. At this point, though, the area surrounding the property was fully developed, with apartment buildings on two sides and single-family homes and a public park on the others. The property itself had been fenced off and inaccessible to the public for many years:
Maybell Orchards circa 2011. Source: Google Maps
Subsidized housing in Palo Alto was (and remains) a desperate need in the city and especially so for economically vulnerable seniors exposed to higher and higher rents on the private market. 60 affordable units, cross-subsidized by the 12 market-rate single-family homes, would have done a tremendous amount of good for many people.
In June 2013, the city council, recognizing the lack of suitable sites for building affordable housing in the city, approved a modest zoning change to increase the number of subsidized units possible on the site. They also requested other changes to assuage some residents’ concerns about the development being “out of scale” with nearby properties and generating too much traffic.
Despite the urgent need for affordable housing and the scaling back of the project, a group of Palo Alto citizens still vehemently disagreed with the unanimous decision of the city council and successfully gathered signatures for a “referendum petition.” Such a legal maneuver forced the council to either withdraw their approval of the project or put the matter before voters for confirmation. Not wanting to see an affordable housing project die, the council chose the latter, and the anti-housing group, later branding themselves “Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning,” ran a “No on D” campaign to kill the development.
In November 2013, after a bitter campaign and an unusually low-turnout election, the mere 41% of Palo Alto residents who bothered to vote chose to veto the council’s decision, 56% to 44%.
Not coincidentally, in the time since, the anti-affordable housing stance of the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning has become President Trump’s public position:
The Maybell fallout
The death of the Maybell senior affordable housing project was a turning point of sorts. Seeing the political tide turn, the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing Corporation started looking to other cities for opportunities to build, since its hometown had grown so hostile to the kinds of housing densities that make affordable homes financially feasible. It even changed its name to remove “Palo Alto” from it; the nonprofit is now called “Alta Housing.”
In its pre-referendum editorial urging Palo Altans to vote “no” on the project, the Palo Alto Weekly Editorial Board wrote: “No one wants the outcome of this controversy to be the sale of the entire property to a developer who will maximize profits on the site, and we don't believe that is the likely outcome if Measure D fails.”
Unfortunately, even the editors of the local paper failed to understand just how elitist and exclusionary their city had become. The Palo Alto Housing Corporation later sold the site to just such a for-profit developer, who initially proposed 32 homes, well within the existing zoning — a chief demand of the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning about the affordable project. But after a series of community meetings and more pushback, the new developer cut that down to just 16 homes, which are now nearing completion in 2020, seven years after this saga began.
Instead of those initial 60 apartments for low-income senior citizens, each of these 16 new single-family homes will be an enormous 4,000 square feet and cost an eye-popping $5 million.
The political ascension of the anti-housing coaltion
In a just world, having such a grossly inequitable outcome take place in as privileged a city as Palo Alto would lead to those responsible being shunned by their neighbors. Instead, the opposite happened. Two of the architects of the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning anti-affordable housing campaign, Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, used it to launch their own political careers and were elected to the city council the following year in 2014. Their slow-growth ally, Lydia Kou, missed joining them that year by a mere 135 votes, but she prevailed two years later in 2016 and is up for re-election this November alongside President Trump.
Of course, for anti-housing politicians like DuBois, Filseth, and Kou, they don’t see their actions as deepening regional segregation and shutting Black, Brown, and low- and middle- income families out of their community. Instead, they try to position themselves as champions of social justice and affordability.
DuBois posted a photo from a Black Lives Matter protest in June and urged his Twitter followers to “come out and march with us.”
Filseth has become a leading advocate of the narrative that the enormous cost of housing in the Bay Area is due not to decades of under-building homes but to subsidizing corporations and the expansion of the tech sector. Ignore the facts that he himself is a former tech CEO and an angel investor and that Palo Alto is the worst offender in the region in terms of balancing jobs and homes.
And Kou had this to say on Twitter about YIMBYs, a pro-housing movement that says “yes” to housing (as opposed to NIMBYs like Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning who say “not in my backyard”):
She, of course, was immediately dunked on for this outrageous and blatant hypocrisy, given her anti-affordable housing history:
(That last comment is a reference to another infamous Kou tweet, where she claims: “There's plenty of housing, you just need a superb Realtor, like me @lydia_kou”)
In the time since this anti-housing cohort of politicians ascended to the Palo Alto City Council, you will not be surprised to learn that the city has permitted very little new housing and certainly nowhere near the levels necessary to rectify their outrageous 3.5 jobs/housing ratio.
According to the latest data from the state of California, Palo Alto has permitted just 554 homes over the last few years, out of the 994 they should have in order to stay on pace for the minimum state housing goals (a low bar). And despite Kou’s declaration of herself as a lover of public housing, Palo Alto has permitted a mere 103 units at the lowest affordability levels, far short of the 561 that should already be permitted and underway.
This country is full of Palo Altos
Palo Alto is an extreme case, chock full of hypocrisy, racial segregation, and classism.
But just like discussing the performance of the schools in my hometown of Pittsford, the controversy over affordable housing at Maybell rarely talked about race explicitly. Instead, Palo Alto residents, many of whom owned multimillion-dollar homes, found all sorts of non-race-based, non-class-based arguments to make for why their neighborhood shouldn’t add more housing:
This Palo Altan talked about protecting the neighborhood’s “proud rural heritage.” (The “rural heritage” project site is a 6-minute drive from Tesla’s headquarters.)
This neighbor argued that Palo Alto is basically “sell[ing] off pieces of the city” in order to get this affordable housing and that it’s not worth the cost in quality of life, traffic, pollution, and school overcrowding. (City staff estimated that the entire 72-home project would’ve added just 6 children to Palo Alto schools.)
This resident claimed to have found a loophole where a wealthy senior could hide their assets in order to qualify as low-income. (Of course, this person supports affordable housing — just not this affordable housing.)
It is a privilege for people like those above, and the anti-housing members of the Palo Alto City Council, to be able to ignore the race and class implications of the decisions their city makes. Not only do they have a secure place to live, the homes they own have more than doubled in value in less than a decade. And while Palo Alto itself is just 7% Black or Latinx, the neighboring city of East Palo Alto is 74% Black and Latinx, and their local schools were facing budget cuts even before Covid.
The United States is full of communities like Palo Alto, where the local political system is built around preserving the status quo and where attempts to make communities more equitable and more diverse are immediately met with an avalanche of not-explicitly-race-based criticism. You can almost certainly dig through your local newspaper and find your own analogs to the Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (even if yours don’t quite contain as many multi-millionaires).
But if you were as disgusted by reading about Maybell Orchards as I was writing about it, then there is an answer: get involved in your suburb’s local politics.
I can guarantee you that there are not enough voices demanding that your community right the wrongs of your region’s racist history — almost certainly including a legacy of race-based redlining on top of current-day inequities in policing and school funding. Your community needs people like you to organize, stand up, and start demanding that things change, because just like in Palo Alto, most of the people who are getting into local politics prefer things just the way they are.
We’ll talk next time about how exactly you can start doing this.
If you have not already done so, please subscribe to “The Suburbs Should Be Less Racist” to be notified of my next essay, where I’ll share a blueprint for how to get more involved locally. Thank you!