The 31-year-old, whose day job is as a tech firm product attorney, and her family plan a move to Santa Cruz, 45 miles to the south of Palo Alto. The reason? She and her 33-year-old software engineer husband can't afford to buy a home and raise a family in Palo Alto.
Here's how Downing does the math:
After many years of trying to make it work in Palo Alto, my husband and I cannot see a way to stay in Palo Alto and raise a family here. We rent our current home with another couple for $6200 a month; if we wanted to buy the same home and share it with children and not roommates, it would cost $2.7M and our monthly payment would be $12,177 a month in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. That’s $146,127 per year — an entire professional’s income before taxes. This is unaffordable even for an attorney and a software engineer.
Indeed, here's a look, from the National Association of Home Builders' Housing Opportunity Index at the most and least affordable markets to buy homes in America's large and medium-sized metro areas.
Commentary from NAHB assistant vp for survey research Rose Quint notes that on a national basis, more than three of every five new and existing homes sold is affordable among households whose earnings match or exceed the national annual median of $65,700. Zeroing in on where that national picture depixelates--the region whose towns Kate Vershov Downing worries are at risk of becoming a "hollowed out museum" if they don't fix their jobs-housing imbalance--Quint spotlights ground zero for affordability challenges here:
For the 15th consecutive quarter, San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, Calif. was the nation’s least affordable major housing market. There, just 8.5 percent of homes sold in the second quarter were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $104,700.
The five least affordable small housing markets were also in California. At the very bottom of the affordability chart was Santa Cruz-Watsonville, where 14.7 percent of all new and existing homes sold were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $85,100.
Now, Kate Vershov Downing and her husband were able to strike the jobs-housing balance without exiting California altogether. That's obviously not the case for many thousands of people making their way out across state lines (nearly 60,000 in net domestic out-migration in 2013-2014, per Internal Revenue Service data analyzed here by New Geography analyst Wendell Cox) seeking a tolerable balance between their pay and the cost of their homes.
Vershov Downing's lament is real, and we've written about the issue and the alternatives earlier here:
Over the last 5 years I’ve seen dozens of my friends leave Palo Alto and often leave the Bay Area entirely. I’ve seen friends from other states get job offers here and then turn them down when they started to look at the price of housing. I struggle to think what Palo Alto will become and what it will represent when young families have no hope of ever putting down roots here, and meanwhile the community is engulfed with middle-aged jet-setting executives and investors who are hardly the sort to be personally volunteering for neighborhood block parties, earthquake preparedness responsibilities, or neighborhood watch.
An Emily Badger column in the Washington Post focuses attention on people--stakeholders--who are "left out" when it comes to local policy and housing decisions. She draws on a source, Luke Tate, a special assistant to the present for economic mobility, in her comments:
Part of the challenge throughout California and plenty of other communities, he once pointed out to me, is that we tend to make local policy — and housing policy in particular — as if the only people who matter in a community are the ones who go to bed there at night.
We don't think of people who work but don't "live" there, or who'd like to live there but can't afford to, or who once lived there but had to leave, or who could access better jobs if only they could move there, or who commute through there as part of their daily lives.
So maybe Downing's resignation--and her joining in a call-to-action web site called Palo Alto Forward that aims to leverage community activism toward easing the city's jobs-housing imbalance, and open more affordable options to those who would live there if they could--will serve, literally, as a wake-up call.