Data show rich cities are failing the Bay Area on housing
The exclusionary zone
Thanks for joining me for the 29th issue of the Golden Stats Warrior, a newsletter for data-based insights about the Bay Area. If this is your first time reading, welcome! You can sign up here. Thank you for your support!
I try not to express my political beliefs in this newsletter, but here is one I hold deeply: Rich communities should want to welcome more residents, particularly those less fortunate than them. Sadly, in the Bay Area, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
According to estimates from the US Census, the Bay Area’s population grew by about 10% from 2010 to 2019, reaching a total of 7.7 million people (I am using the nine-county definition of the Bay Area). Yet of the ten richest cities of the 101 cities in the Bay Area, not one of them grew faster than 5%. These cities are Atherton, Belvedere, Hillsborough, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, Piedmont, Portola Valley, Ross, and Woodside. All of them had median household incomes of $220,000 or more in 2019.
The chart below shows population growth in the 2010s versus household median income for each Bay Area city. The growth estimates are based on number of housing units built, as well as birth and death rates. (Here is a link to an interactive version of the chart.)
The data show that middle income cities have, on average, grown at a much faster pace than the region’s poorest and richest locales. You can see that relationship more clearly in the chart below which visualizes the average growth rates for cities by income level. The 42 cities with a median household income of $100,000 to $150,000 grew twice as fast as the 11 cities with incomes over $200,000.
It’s not surprising that poorer cities are growing slowly. People in the US have long left low-income cities to move to higher-income neighborhoods which typically have higher-rated schools, lower crime rates and better public amenities.
But why are rich cities in the region growing so slowly? It’s because, for the most part, they don’t want more people. Whether it’s to protect their property values, exclude Black people, keep down traffic or protect their city’s physical environment, these cities make it hard to build new housing. The Bay Area is an outlier when it comes to rich city population growth. In the 2010s, the average city in the US with a median household income of more than $200,000 grew at a rate 50% faster than than their counterparts in the Bay.
Take Cupertino, the home of Apple and a 1% population growth rate in the 2010s. The affluent 60,000 person city elected an anti-density mayor Steven Scharf in 2018, who once joked the Cupertino should build a wall around it to stop traffic coming in from San Jose. Residents filed a lawsuit to stop a 2,400 unit development at an abandoned mall that would include 1,201 affordable units. The suit was supported by the Chair of Cupertino’s Planning Commission. It failed. Scharf was not reelected in 2020.
“What we don’t want in our backyards—or yours, for that matter—is more gridlock, crowded schools, an overtaxed infrastructure and ecosystem,” explained Caryl Gorska, an officer for anti-density organization Better Cupertino, to Sasha Perigo for a terrific story in SF Curbed. “I really want to eradicate this idea that all growth is good, or even inevitable.”
The fact that cities like Cupertino fight growth has the effect of keeping them segregated. Of the ten richest cities in the Bay Area, none of them have a Black population of over 3%, even though about 6.4% of Bay Area residents are Black. The small number of Black residents in these communities is in large part the result of the long history of racially exclusionary laws intended to keep them that way.
For example, many of these rich cities have zoned an unusually large amount of their land for single-family homes. This was done with the intention of making these communities unaffordable for Black people who could only afford to live in a multi-unit building. (UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute recently published a comprehensive history of the region’s housing segregation.)
So what do we expect to happen going forward? It’s not clear. Activists and policymakers are trying to make it harder for rich cities to keep out new residents, but these communities still have a lot of control over what gets built.
One reason rich cities could avoid building housing and desegregating is that they are generally not accessible by mass transit. Many efforts to increase housing, like Scott Wiener’s SB50 and Plan Bay Area, emphasize building near public transportation so that people don’t need to commute by car, and thus contribute to climate change. As a result, climate change now serves as an argument to keep some rich cities cloistered. The chart below shows that, if Plan Bay Area were to go into effect, housing unit growth would generally be higher in the Bay’s most populous cities than it would be in its richest. (These numbers are rough estimates based on units in 2019 and expected growth in units from 2020 to 2050.)
Finally, it is worth noting that though they have done better than their rich counterparts, San Francisco and San Jose have also done poorly in terms of growth for relatively wealthy cities. The Census data shows that Seattle and Washington DC have grown much faster than San Francisco and San Jose. So while the region’s rich cities need to do more, there is also room for growth in region’s urban centers.
Bay Area media recommendations of the week
The very best journalism holds the powerful to account. That is exactly what the San Jose Spotlight did with their excellent reporting on how some teachers and staff in the Los Gatos School District skipped the vaccine line.
Spotlight reporter Madelyn Reese uncovered that Los Gatos staff were offered vaccinations at Good Samaritan Hospital even though only healthcare workers and those over 75 were supposed to have access. Los Gatos is a wealthy suburb of San Jose. The staff were told they could skip the line out of thanks for a fundraiser they had held for the hospital in 2020. The teachers were told they had to pretend to be healthcare works when signing up for their appointment.
In response to the scandal, Santa Clara County will not provide Good Samaritan Hospital with more vaccines until they receive “sufficient assurances” they will follow the rules in the future. The Spotlight’s incredible work will certainly make other powerful actors less likely to circumvent the system in the future. And thank goodness for that.
(Seen any great Bay Area media recently? Send it to me!)
Dan’s favorite things
Hopefully, before the end of 2021 we will all get a chance to see live music again, and support local artists. I can’t wait. In preparation, I have been going through some of the “best of” Bay Area music lists of 2020, including articles from KQED, the SF Chronicle, and The Bay Bridged. I also loved this playlist from local music writer Nina Tabios.
My favorite discovery was the gorgeous jazz and experimental album “Familiar Future” by Dougie Stu. Below is a playlist with some of my other favorite recently released songs by Bay Area artists. Most of these are people living and working in the Bay, but I also took a few liberties (like including Hayward’s own Saweetie).
Thanks for your time, and see you in a couple of weeks.
If you think a friend might enjoy this newsletter, please forward it along. You can follow me on Twitter at @dkopf or email me at email@example.com. The Golden Stats Warrior logo was made by the great Jared Joiner, the best friend a newsletter writer could have. Follow him @jnjoiner. Also, thanks to my favorite connector Chris Murphy for copy editing this week.