Silicon Valley may have a diverse population and abounding opportunities that have made it the global hub of high-tech. But beyond that luster, the region is also a microcosm—a case study—of the "gaping inequality," across the United States, says Julián Castro, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Its position in the world makes Silicon Valley not only a critical economic hub for the nation, but also an important model that could set the tone for those battling similar issues now and in the future—for better or for worse.
“You have some inveterate tough issues to deal with like educational inequities and a lack of affordable housing opportunity,” Castro said Wednesday in the keynote speech of Joint Venture Silicon Valley's annual State of the Valley event. “The point is, you’re important because as that microcosm, if you can get it right, if you can tackle these challenges successfully, you set an example that is powerful, that is moving and that is bound to spur other regions into action.”
That may be a tall order for the region that by almost every measure is home to massive inequality, including a growing homeless population and staggering housing prices. Those inequalities have only grown during the pandemic, according to a newly released report by Joint Venture Silicon Valley's Institute for Regional Studies.
“We used to lament that in Silicon Valley the rich kept getting richer while the poor became poorer,” Russell Hancock, president and CEO of Joint Venture said in a letter about the data. “Today we must frankly admit that the pandemic has made the rich richer while the poor are dying.”
Castro, the former HUD secretary for President Barack Obama and onetime mayor of San Antonio, offered advice for Silicon Valley as it tackles its most arduous issues—such as affordable housing and transportation—during a moment of reckoning across the nation.
He also said the burden shouldn't only be on cities' shoulders. Local governments need more investment from the federal government in the form of tax credits, grants and other incentives to make it easier for developers to build more affordable housing, he said.
But Silicon Valley's leaders can take action in the meantime, he said. Not all of his advice is novel, but some may affirm an idea that politicos and policy wonks across the Bay Area have been saying for years: solving deep-rooted issues will take a coordinated regional approach.
“We know that no one city, no one county can solve these problems acting on its own,” Castro said. “I saw far too many times when it came to affordable housing for instance, suburbs often thought that that was the big city’s job and they worked as hard as they could to try to keep affordable housing from being built.”
In Santa Clara County, smaller communities, including Los Altos and Cupertino have historically not met their state-mandated goals to build affordable housing. Instead, many of the small cities that make up the sprawling region have deflected opted for a slow-growth approach that favors single-family homes over multi-family housing.
Those patterns, paired with the region's massive job growth over the past decade, means almost every city in the region has more jobs than it does homes. San Jose, the region's largest city, currently has the opposite imbalance, with more homes than it has jobs.
One local policy issue that cities can use to alleviate that imbalance is zoning, Castro said. He praised Berkeley council members' vote this week to embark on a process that would end single-family zoning and expand multi-family housing in the East Bay city.
San Jose city planners and a committee to update the city's General Plan are also exploring a similar concept, called Opportunity Housing, which could allow triplexes and fourplexes in parts of the city currently zoned only for single-family homes.
“I know that historically land-use regulations, zoning and planning regulations and the NIMBY-ism (not-in-my-backyard) that often comes, the pushback against the creation of multi-family housing especially if that housing is affordable housing,” Castro said. “The myths that surrounded the misconceptions, sometimes the bigotry in some places and biases get the better of too many policy makers and prevent the creation of units.”