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Google Sets Its Sights On One Of Silicon Valley’s Most Diverse Cities

Daniel Gonzalez is a lifelong resident of San Jose, California. He knows the city well, having moved around so much as a kid as his parents searched for work and somewhere to live.

“I like to joke that I’ve lived in every neighborhood, but it’s a bit of a stretch,” says the 33-year-old school IT technician.

The biggest change Gonzalez has witnessed over the years, he says, is the exodus of residents who’ve been forced to move away from the booming tech city as rising housing costs have become too much to bear. This includes his parents, who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1970s, but who moved out of San Jose in the early 2000s.

Over the past year, median house prices in San Jose have risen almost 25 percent to more than $1.1 million, according to real estate site Zillow. Rentals have likewise skyrocketed, with tenants paying an average of just under $3,500 a month — almost 50 percent more than in 2011.

With plans for a new Google campus in San Jose currently under discussion, residents like Gonzalez are worried that things could get a lot worse, particularly for the city’s communities of color. San Jose has large Hispanic and Asian populations, and communities of color are often disproportionately priced out of the housing market. 

Google parent Alphabet is negotiating to buy a plot of land next to San Jose's Diridon train station.

Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google parent Alphabet is negotiating to buy a plot of land next to San Jose’s Diridon train station.

At the heart of the city’s housing crisis lies a failure to build enough affordable homes. Last year, the city issued building permits for just 475 affordable housing units — a fifth of its 2017 target. In contrast, it issued 2,622 permits for market-rate units, more than 160 percent of its target. The same story is playing out across California, which has a shortfall of more than one million rental homes affordable to extremely- and very low-income households (categories defined in comparison to local median area wages).

Combine this lack of affordable housing with an inundation of tech workers on tech worker salaries and it’s no surprise that lower-wage workers like Gonzalez and his parents are hardest hit.

“There are countless stories within our group of friends and family alone who have moved out of San Jose because they can’t afford to stay here anymore,” said Gonzalez. Even his workplace has been affected. The public school district where he and his wife, a teacher, work has seen a decline in enrollments.

Worried about the impacts price hikes are having, Gonzalez recently joined Serve the People San Jose, a grassroots group that wants to stop the displacement of low-income residents by putting a halt to the influx of tech companies such as eBay and Adobe, both of which have headquarters in San Jose.

In particular, the group is keen to prevent the go-ahead of a new Google campus. Details are still being finalized, but, according to the city council, preliminary discussions with Google indicate interest in building a 6- to 8-million-square-foot development housing office space as well as restaurants and shops. The initiative could, according to the council, support more than 20,000 new jobs in the process.

The land earmarked for this project, which is partly owned by the city and next to the Diridon train station in downtown San Jose, is mainly car parking spaces and disused lots, plus one pet day care business that will need to move. It might not seem like much but, campaigners say, the knock-on effects on the city could be huge.

Bulldozers cleared The Jungle homeless camp in San Jose in 2014 and the camp's 300 or so residents were forced to move on.&nb

JOSH EDELSON via Getty Images

Bulldozers cleared The Jungle homeless camp in San Jose in 2014 and the camp’s 300 or so residents were forced to move on. Last year, the city issued building permits for just 475 affordable housing units — a fifth of its 2017 target.

A big point of contention for Gonzalez is the lack of consultation over the land. Serve the People San Jose would like to see the land kept in public ownership — perhaps to be run by a community trust — and used for affordable housing, public education or health services. And it isn’t the only organization scrutinizing the plans to protect the city from spiraling housing costs.

Silicon Valley Rising, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing in Silicon Valley, is open to the idea of the Google campus in principle, and a spokesperson from San Jose’s city council told HuffPost that the city needs to grow its jobs base. But the campaign group wants to ensure the campus brings opportunities for working families, rather than exacerbating the region’s housing crisis, and is calling on Google to finance a community-run affordable housing fund.

“For us, this isn’t about saying no to tech development — it’s not going away, nor do we want it to — but if it’s going to happen on this level, we’ve got to come together … and engage with the company about how they’ll mitigate impact on the community,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising.

Despite hoping for the best, Fernandez said she is increasingly worried. “Decisions are about to be made,” she said. “If we are not addressing the issues community members are concerned about now … what certainty do we have that the company will do so once the land is sold and the project progresses?”

Attendees at a community town hall meeting run by Silicon Valley Rising share their vision for the Google mega-campus.

Silicon Valley De-Bug

Attendees at a community town hall meeting run by Silicon Valley Rising share their vision for the Google mega-campus.

Across Silicon Valley, as tech companies have continued to grow, a fierce debate has ensued over how much they are to blame for the pressure on housing and communities. Many hold the tech companies almost wholly accountable. But David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, suggested the decision-making of city halls must be considered too.

“Unfortunately cities want to attract companies and jobs, not build housing,” he said. “Cities have a financial disincentive to approve housing development because they make more money back in taxes from office development.”

Garcia believes that, in the absence of cities doing their part to ensure enough housing for their citizens, tech firms will increasingly become the ones creating both housing and communities for their employees, becoming more engaged in the policy side of things in the process.

“I think the big companies are still figuring out to how to engage in the question of housing, but the housing crisis in California has got to a point where they can’t afford to ignore it anymore,” Garcia said. 

Writing about San Jose for CityLab, Richard Florida, director of cities at the University of Toronto, along with journalist Benjamin Schneider, implored Google to be a trendsetter by building enough housing to match the number of new jobs it would bring to the city. A significant percentage of these homes should be below market rate, they said, arguing a more equitable form of urban development would help Google regain public goodwill in the face of tech companies’ poor reputation.

Sam Liccardo, San Jose’s mayor, believes that the city won’t end up losing out. “There is a contrast between what you see in San Jose and what’s happening with regards to [cities’ efforts to attract] Foxconn or Amazon’s second headquarters, where local officials are falling over themselves to give subsidies and giveaways to get them,” Liccardo said. “We’re not giving away anything … The price of the land being sold for the Google San Jose project is higher than what it had been appraised at a year before the deal.”

Liccardo is confident that, since the campus will likely not be complete for 10 years, San Jose has time to prepare for the influx of workers. “There is no doubt there is a housing crisis in this city and concerns about housing are valid … But there will be housing built alongside this project,” he told HuffPost. As mayor he has pledged to build 25,000 homes in the next five years. His office confirmed construction has started on 1,533 apartments in the city’s downtown.

Google did not answer questions about housing, but confirmed that the city has projected building work to begin at the earliest in 2025 and said land is still being acquired.

For residents and campaigners, uncertainty remains. “The plans I’ve seen for the campus look gorgeous,” Fernandez said. “There’s mock-up pictures of people riding their bikes around the area — it looks great. My concern is that people who look like me will never get to ride that bike down that park because we’re going to be displaced. I’d love to see something here that looks beautiful, that honors the area. But absent of a plan that is people-centered, I don’t know what we’re doing.”

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