Stop being bullied: Let's sue Mountain View

Fun fact! Roy Stalin is now Google's VP of Housing and Urban Development!
Nato Green: "Mayor Ed Lee, I found locations for the 30,000 units you want to build. They're in the 408."

San Francisco lets Silicon Valley push it around like the school bully in an '80s teen comedy. We're at each other's throats trying to cope with soaring housing costs, while Silicon Valley gets off scot-free for creating problems we get to solve.

Local governments dump housing problems onto the places that do build, mostly San Francisco and Oakland. For example, late last year, Mountain View approved plans to add 3.4 million square feet of office space around the Google and LinkedIn fortresses, adding 20,000 jobs. No new housing. Supposedly the newly elected City Council eventually will vote to allow 1,500 to 5,000 units in the area, but the other 15,000 are San Francisco's problem by default.

Sunnyvale, Milpitas, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and all these tedious South Bay hamlets debase themselves to offer tech titans expansion upon expansion to corporate campuses without any new housing. One UC Davis study suggested those cities have a combined below-market-rate housing deficit of 20,000 units. Mayor Ed Lee, I found locations for the 30,000 units you want to build. They're in the 408.

San Francisco should sue Mountain View and the rest of these fools. San Francisco could challenge all these cities to adopt a Jobs-Housing Linkage Program like we did years ago, to comply with their own housing elements. Even to the point of bringing dreaded California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits against big office projects that don't mitigate the housing problems they send us.

A relevant precedent is Urban Habitat v. the City of Pleasanton. State law requires local governments to adopt a housing element with land-use regulations to meet local housing needs. Pleasanton didn't comply with its own housing element and used a bunch of obscure zoning gimmicks to prevent new housing from being built, especially below-market-rate housing. Pleasanton lost in 2010 and had to rezone and allow more below-market-rate housing. San Francisco could adapt this approach to sue over the refusal to build in the deep south.

We progressives are accused of being NIMBYs, of reflexively opposing higher density new development. I support lots of it. In Silicon Valley. Build all the market-rate housing you want down there. I've been to Mountain View. There's nothing there worth preserving, except Taqueria La Bamba on Rengstorff Avenue. Their carnitas is the rapture. When I started stand-up, the bar Ron's Farmhouse in Mountain View had a weekly comedy night. That fetid hole of regret closed. Build a 50-story luxury condo tower there.

The reason these adorable towns resist more housing is basically racism. It's in the guise of alarms about "preserving neighborhood character," "school overcrowding" and "crime," but that's all code for poor brown people. They moved to a subdivision in 65 percent white Palo Alto to enjoy good schools and make little James Francos in peace. Fine!

South Bay: You left a lot of your rich white people here in San Francisco. Please come collect them. In San Francisco, we're upset about the displacement of working-class communities of color. You can preserve your historic landmark whiteness and we'll happily welcome "those people" here. Bring your people home. That's a win-win.

I know the techies in San Francisco feel embattled and beleaguered. They're blamed for things that are out of their control. I'm here for you, Google Bus riders. I'm concerned that all the hours you spend commuting are bad for your health. I want you to live close enough to bike to work. Santa Clara and Sunnyvale are both "All-America Cities." There's a sign on the freeway saying so. I don't know what that means, but I want you to have down time after work to find out. You deserve linguica from Neto's in Santa Clara. Help me help you.

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32 Responses:

  1. Sadly, I can't think of any legal grounds on which one municipality gets to sue a non-adjacent one over zoning and planning codes, but I approve of the thought even if SF frankly doesn't have much standing to wave its fingers.

    (Ergo, my personal crackpot idea: forcibly amalgamate everything north of San Jose and south of Napa into a single city, a la NYC 1899 or Toronto 1999. Welcome to San Francisco, Athertonites! We'll be building our next public housing project...right here.)

    • jwz says:

      Only if we get to call it Mega City 2, or San Angeles.

    • kingmob says:

      Didn't Toronto amalgamating like that lead directly to Mayor Crackhead?

      • Oh man, you're gonna make me defend my half-baked crackpot idea based on evidence and consequences? What kind of monster are you?

        Anyway... shrug The election of an occasional incompetent executive is hopefully something that a functional democracy is capable of weathering. NYC survived the O'Dwyer administration; Toronto will outlive the Fords.

        • kingmob says:

          I suppose I was trying to make the point that the Valley's Randroid gobshites will change the political character of SF. But the gobshites already live in SF anyway, right? That's what the whole conversation's about.

          But yes, your crackpot and impossible idea might have unintended negative consequences.

          • Laura Rubin says:

            I'd like to point out that the gobshites live in SF partly because the entrenched landed breeders have done everything in their power to make everything south of SF bland, boring, and cultureless. The gobshites who live in SF are changing the character because it's the only place in the western part of the Bay that has character.

  2. This is definitely something that should happen, but it's not actually going to relieve the situation in SF.

    Employee shuttlers at Yagoobook aren't in SF because of the lack of apartment buildings in the Valley. They want an SF lifestyle, and are willing to endure the commute and a lot of other silliness.

    There is another set of employee shuttle riders who are commuting to places like Fremont, because they are not making the big bucks (for example, a tester or other junior dev), or they need space for their family, and so on. Those people could be helped by denser housing in Mountain View.

    I know that Google would prefer to construct employee housing, just because they believe in exterminating all private thought unifying their workforce, but Mountain View blocked it.

    • Employee shuttlers at Yagoobook aren't in SF because of the lack of apartment buildings in the Valley. They want an SF lifestyle, and are willing to endure the commute and a lot of other silliness.

      Actually it's a little of both. Palo Alto, Mountain View, San Mateo et al all have lower rental vacancy rates than SF/Berkeley/Oakland, and generally higher rents on those few available units since most of the available stock is single-family houses. And it's gonna stay that way for the forseeable future, since most of the peninsula burbclaves have effectively or explicitly outlawed the building of multifamily residences.

      It may well be that some, most or all of the younger valley employees would prefer to live in the city even if there was housing available down south, but under present circumstances that will remain an untested and untestable hypothesis.

      • In any case the entire question is mostly moot since the employee shuttle thing is (as far as I know) overhyped as a cause of SF's woes. The last estimate I saw was that there are 7,000 employee shuttlers to the Valley.[1] If we believe this listicle[2], there are at least 10,000 tech workers in SF, even if you just count the big firms - forget about startupland, which must be in the thousands too.

        So even if you made it completely illegal for people to commute from SF to the Valley, by employee shuttle or by Caltrain, you would only reduce the problems by one-half -- maybe. And don't forget a number of those workers would also jump ship to some other employer based in SF.

        Bottom line the only way to stop rich young people from going to SF would be to make SF an uninteresting place to live, for that kind of person. Arguably people like jwz have experienced part of that already with some pretty excessive regulation of entertainment businesses.



        • jwz says:

          Did you just imply that the shuttles are bad because public transit is bad? I don't even

          • No, I don't see how you could conclude that from what I said...

            • jwz says:

              The reason people hate on the shuttles has nothing to do with the fact that people are using them to commute.

              • My impression, which could be wrong, is that the anti-shuttle people believe that shuttles are like a disease vector - bringing techies from the Valley into SF. And if you just eliminate the shuttles the problem of techies raising everyone's rents, incentivizing evictions etc., goes away.

                • nooj says:

                  They privatize a public resource to their own exclusive benefit, instead of benefitting others (in one way or another).


                  • Full disclosure: I'm a former Google shuttle rider, since the beginning of the program. But I'm also concerned about gentrification, and in a former life, I helped my girlfriend with her activism against it in Vancouver BC, where I live today. So, irony, whatever, but please hear me out.

                    It's always seemed to me that the "public resources" angle was a bogus way of talking about employee shuttles. Is the idea here that Google, etc., are abusing public resources because their employees sometimes wait on street corners? And the buses sometimes take up space on those street corners for like, a minute? Yeah there is some minor impact on public resources, and it was a legal grey area, but they did make some rules around this time year.

                    But this is a pretty silly way to look at it. In a normal city, unless the shuttles are becoming incredibly disruptive - and as far as I know, they aren't - nobody would care. In a normal city, companies would be praised for doing their part to reduce carbon emissions and cars on the road.

                    Furthermore, none of these tech companies like running shuttles, or opening offices in San Francisco. They'd much rather have all their employees in Mountain View, and even tried to build employee housing there, but those cities are committed to single-family dwellings. So what you're seeing here is entirely due to the choices of their employees, not the companies.

                    The shuttles are just a symbol. People really want to talk about how techies are changing the city, by choosing to live here and gentrifying it. But that's hard to talk about in an American context. In the USA it's deemed okay for anyone to earn as much as they can, and spend it in any way they can. They aren't violating anyone else's rights simply by exercising economic freedom. But they are making it difficult for others to live here, and, crucially, they change the character of the city in a way that upsets a lot of people.

                    My personal view is that to really fix this problem, you'd have to make SF an undesirable place to live. Or, you'd have to do the unthinkable and forbid certain kinds of people from living where they choose. In other places, people have notions of "collective rights", for instance, the right of people to live in a neighborhood with a certain kind of character. This causes a lot of other kinds of problems (it can be a cover for racism and NIMBYism) but that's pretty much the only option left.

                  • jwz says:

                    You may think that the shuttles are not taking public resources without paying for them, but you're wrong. You may think that there's not evidence that these shuttles are negatively impacting public transit for the non-Google-employed public, but you're wrong. You may think that this taking of a public good is so minor that complaining about it is "silly", but lots of us don't agree.

                    "Like?" What companies "like" is irrelevant, even if a company could be said to "like" something. All that matters is what they do.

                    I fail to see how Mountain View's unwillingness to build housing when they build office space counts as "entirely due to the choices of their employees".

                  • I think I'm making this too combative. Sorry about that. We agree on most things.

                    Suing the city of Mountain View is an interesting idea (although, IANAL) and I agree something should be done about the whole Bay Area's resistance to new housing where there are new jobs.

                    Thing is, a lot of the tech jobs are SF-based now, so focusing on commuters is a bit of a sideshow.

                    And as for bus systems – it's very hard for a bus system to be a net negative for a city. Even a bus for bourgeois bohemian bit-twiddlers. Even if it encourages 50% more of them to live far away from work. The efficiencies are just so much greater.

                    Tech employee shuttles are just a very visible system of privilege. What you don't see are how the big tech companies are hiding their money in offshore tax shelters and thereby impoverishing the place where they got their start, and where most of their employees live.

                  • nooj says:

                    Neil, two things:

                    Yeah there is some minor impact on public resources, and it was a legal grey area, but they did make some rules around this time last year.

                    You did read the "previouslies," right? It was not a legal grey area. It was expressly illegal, and heavily enforced, for anyone whose name was not Google. The rules "they" made last year was effectively SF deciding to accept Google's offer of $1/stop (a tiny fraction of the $271 cost charged to other citizens), after allowing Google to flaunt the law for a decade.

                    What you don't see are how the big tech companies are hiding their money

                    Absolutely. Holding billions in profits offshore and bringing them in only on tax-free day (or never) is horrendous. But that issue is a different conversation, and it doesn't affect the validity of this conversation.

        • To clarify: 10,000 workers working for SF-based offices. Although, come to think of it, many of those workers also shuttle in from places like the East Bay.

  3. Jeff Bell says:

    By that rationale, San Francisco also needs to add 30,000 units to balance with San Mateo county. It was irresponsible to add all those jobs without adding the housing.

  4. Roger says:

    This is all a side effect of proposition 13. Prop 13 ensures that tax revenue per residential property will go down in real terms (ie after adjusting for inflation) over the years. Commercial property isn't under prop 13 so its tax revenue can increase faster. A rational area would slow residential building and increase commercial.

  5. A Know-it-all From The Internet says:

    I thought the future was going to be giant self-supporting arcologies for the ever-warring zaibatsus anyway. This pantomime-horse of a "Free Market" is seriously not ramping up in an appropriate pace. I want a skyline of endless refinery fires glimmering off of possibly-replicant-detectives eyes tout suite!

  6. CaseyD says:

    Since when is Mountain View in the 408? #clulesssnobs

  7. Nate says:

    I've seen Nato Green at The Business at the Hemlock Tavern in SF. Highly recommended

  8. Brad J says:

    For maximum irony: the one thing the author says should stay in Mountain View, Taqueria La Bamba on Rengstorff?

    The original La Bamba closed a few months ago, to be replaced housing.

    • Laura Rubin says:

      Thankfully they opened another location in the shitty strip mall diagonally across the intersection from the old construction. Bonus, you don't have to hike up a 4-ft incline to stand in line.

    • Steve B says:

      No, he was dead wrong. La Costena was far superior to La Bamba...

  9. Tom Lord says:

    The article is wrong. The Bay Area housing crises have been deliberately manufactured over a period of decades by a collusion between a speculating capitalist class and the regional political class.

    The purpose of the swindle is simple: to enable the speculators to acquire, "improve" and flip land (or collect rent) and to do so with as much public subsidy as they can grab.

    The main obstacle to the swindle is local autonomy in the key areas of zoning and planning, and housing regulation.

    For decades the speculators have worked to retain key factions in the Democrat party as dependent clients. This is mainly accomplished through campaign contributions, direct election spending, the manipulation of key endorsements, and good ol' petty cronyism. Regional politicians can not be elected dog catcher if these speculators align against them. And at the same time the speculators have enough power that they could probably elect a dog mayor.

    The swindle is a real estate scheme and the obstacle is local autonomy so....

    The main tactic the speculators use is various forms of regulatory capture. At the state level they have attacked local control over zoning and planning with density bonuses, transit corridor development incentives, (now-mostly-on-hiatus) redevelopment zones, and on and on.

    All of those regulatory efforts have two things in common: they create public subsidy for private development and they reduce local control over private development.

    At the state level the speculators have also attacked local housing regulation such as strong rent control and strong eviction controls.

    Greenwashed legislation has been a favorite tool in recent decades and in that arena you can see local sovereignty being ripped away. Control over development has been moved out of the various City Councils and out of public attention through efforts like Plan Bay Area (from the Association of Bay Area Governments) and in the policies of regional transit boards.

    The scheme is formulaic: Make land which was difficult to develop (for regulatory reasons) into land available to the regional speculators. Find a way to give them public subsidy.

    As projects play out, neighborhoods and households get screwed but at the end of the day the speculators get back far more than they spend buying elections.

  10. Tom Lord says:

    I'll also add that the big Silicon Valley firms swell their ranks to uncomfortable levels as a way to cheat the stock market. Here is the scheme:

    When profit margins are high, the firms hire as many people as they can. The quality and purpose of these hires is secondary. What matters is that to Wall St. analysts this appears to be "growth": a company reinvesting its earnings and growing its liquidation value.

    When profit margins get soft -- e.g. if the online ad market takes a dive -- firms then have a lot of deadwood that they can freely chuck overboard: mass layoffs. Getting rid of useless workers keeps company revenues the same but restores faltering margins.

    The system is as old as the hills though some of today's giants have taken it to a new, perverse level where under a guise of (pseudo-scientific) metrics based management they treat large segments of the useless deadwood employees as a kind of science experiment.

    There is a hegemonic theme that the bourgie press helps to spread and that's that these tech wunderkind really want the San Francisco lifestyle (or Oakland or ...) and that that's what drives things like the private busses and high rents.

    It's only a kind of half truth. A lot of deadwood people on payroll have salaries that would make them rich in most of the country and yet they live paycheck to paycheck with excessive shares disappearing as rent and into the black hole of a "high cost of living". It is to the employers' advantage to propagandize for that "lifestyle" which has the net effect of making these employees quite dependent.

    No amount of housing supply policy can stop those firms from inflating employment bubbles like that. Speculators will never choose to build so much housing the values start falling. Only an eventual bubble burst (this time in ad prices and the price of on-line surveillance data) can bring demand back down.

    Price controls (e.g. strong rent control) and tenant rights (e.g. strong eviction protections and foreclosure protections) are effective tools to help communities resist being trashed by the boom and bust dynamics. They also go a long way to squelching harmful forms of real estate speculation. That's why these tools have been taken away from cities.

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