Wednesday, September 21, 2005

From the Valley of Heart's Despair

That shack costs how much? Oh, that's just the garage—I am often asked why I left a home in a redwood forest in the Santa Cruz mountains of California for modest little Baltimore. Well, besides having a nice job offer, there was an even more serious reason. We didn’t own that house and there was no chance in hell we could afford one there. House prices in Northern California—around Silicon Valley—long since went beyond the ridiculous, passed the obscene, to the upspeakable. We bought an entire house in a wonderful neighborhood in Baltimore for the down-payment on a fixer-upper in Palo Alto, and that was six years ago. And therein lies an interesting story.

Until recently it was the case that Silicon Valley—the area south of San Francisco, mostly Santa Clara County between San Jose and Palo Alto—thrived because the industries there could attract the best and the brightest engineers and scientists. It had perfect weather and great physical beauty. When William Shockley, who grew up in Palo Alto, built what was to be the ancestor of all Silicon Valley electronic companies there, the attractiveness of the place was key. Given a choice of where they wanted to live, very bright people would choose the Santa Clara Valley (its real geographic name). Jack London called it the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” but that was before the orchards were stripped and replaced with shopping malls and bungalows and the fragrant air blew away. San Francisco, one of the world’s great cities, is an hour away. When I was science writer at Stanford, I’d give lectures to people from other parts of the country who wanted to grab some of the local economy for their areas and wanted to know why they were having trouble. Well, I’d tell them, you are in Michigan and the weather sucks and it’s flat and boring, and we are in Palo Alto and we have coeds running around in halter tops and shorts in December and we are within two hours of the Sierra for skiing and one hour from surfing beaches and we can pick lemons off the trees from our bicycles when we peddle to work and eat fresh vegetables all year around and....

What brings this up is a survey done by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the local business group in San Jose. They matched the San Jose area with seven other areas known for high-tech research and discovered that in terms of good places to live, Silicon Valley now comes in last. Dead last. The change has been a well-kept secret for years; I’m hardly the only refugee. Stanford has a helluva time trying to get faculty, junior or senior, because candidates come to visit, take one look at real estate prices and break out in laughter. Then they go home. Subsidizing housing helps only a little; even Stanford is not that rich. The only people who can afford a house in California already own a house in California. Real estate isn’t the only problem. Try traffic. Proposition 13, which limits real estate taxes, long ago destroyed the school system. Prices for everything are higher, and while salaries also are elevated, it doesn't make up the difference.

Reports the San Jose Mercury News, the hometown paper:

The report, called ``Daring To Compete: A Region-to-Region Reality Check,'' will be officially released Wednesday. The leadership group compared Silicon Valley to Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Fairfax, Va.; Boston; Seattle; Austin; Portland, Ore.; and San Diego.

Among the findings:

• In the seven categories examined, Silicon Valley ranked no higher than six. When it came to housing affordability, only San Diego did worse.

• Raleigh-Durham ranks first among the eight regions overall, thanks to its low cost of housing, easy commutes, good schools, and low unemployment and taxes.

• While all the tech regions were hit hard by the downturn, Silicon Valley continues to struggle with the highest unemployment rate.

• While Silicon Valley eighth-grade students have some of the best math test scores in California, the state as a whole ranks last in the list.

• Silicon Valley still has the second-highest tax rates, tied with San Diego and behind only Boston.

While all the issues are considered important, housing that workers can afford remains easily the most vexing problem for the valley -- and the most intractable, [Carl] Guardino [president and CEO of the group] said.

If we could afford it, we’d move back because it is a lovely place to live. My wife was heartbroken when we left (she's there visiting now). But we can’t. You can’t either. None of us can. They fucked up a good thing.

No comments: