As I learned during a visit to see my son, who is interning here for the summer, the low-rise buildings belie a mighty force of thousands of workers — mostly young and from far-flung places — who seem happy to ride the company’s free and colorful bicycles between buildings.
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And Google has plans for much more in the area, buying up land in nearby San Jose and Sunnyvale to make room for what the San Jose Mercury News said could be 31,000 more workers.
New jobs are good for a community, right?
The answer isn’t so obvious to a vocal group of protesters that regularly frequents Google events, charging the company with exacerbating the area’s housing crisis and causing more homelessness.
The group is, of course, protesting the wrong people. If cities in the area would change zoning laws and allow much more housing, rents would stabilize. That’s how supply and demand works.
But such solutions can be hard to see, and they can be politically complicated to enact.
I write about this because a recent report by Richard Florida, a co-founder of CityLab, and his colleague Charlotta Mellander, puts Salt Lake metro area on a list of the 20 least affordable places to live in the United States.
The survey is unique in that it compares house prices to local incomes. In the Salt Lake area, it now takes 4.5 times the median household’s annual income to buy a median-priced home. Not surprisingly, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco top the list, each with median home prices that require more than 9 times the annual household income.
The authors also ranked cities by median individual income. By that metric, Provo suddenly rises to the seventh most expensive place in America, requiring 12.1 times the median yearly income for a house.
As I’ve noted before, Utah’s silicon slopes may not compare with the size of Silicon Valley, but it’s getting there in some disturbing ways, and we all need to pay attention.
It’s a somewhat familiar problem nationwide. A Menino Survey of 115 mayors by Boston University last year found 51 percent identifying rising housing costs as the main reason people choose to move from their cities. But 35 percent also said zoning and development issues are the biggest factors affecting their approval ratings.
Which brings us back to a familiar theme. A growing population leads to greater demand for housing, but politicians who try to meet that demand with high-density housing — the only real solution as land becomes scarce — face political consequences.
And this is complicated further by the fact that not all high-density developments make sense. Salt Lake County recently had the good sense to reject a proposal to put 30,000 people into 930 acres of desert in the far southwest suburbs — an area out of character with urban living. Yes, we need more high-density housing, but that project was destined to give the whole concept a bad name.
So, what would be the right kind of project?
Earlier this year, Issi Romem, chief at BuildZoom, wrote that metro areas ought to look toward new, dense construction in the inner rings of their suburbs, rather than allowing new construction to focus solely on the outer, or newer, rings.
Along the Wasatch Front, that would mean more construction in cities such as South Salt Lake, or perhaps Murray and Midvale.
Some high-density developments already have been built along the rail corridor, but much more is needed, and the age-old political problems remain.
As Romem notes, people who already live in a place have louder voices than those who might move in later. Those new people won’t likely move in before the next election.
Seeing the Bay Area’s housing problems first-hand is sobering. People with salaries of $100,000 or more barely can afford rent. Utah shouldn’t want any part of that.
Advocates for affordable housing and the homeless have valid concerns. The answers, however, have more to do with hard political decisions that increase the housing supply than with subsidies for affordable housing.
The Wasatch Front so far has just a taste of what things could be like if those hard decisions are not made now.