In a state of the city address last week, the mayor of Cupertino, Darcy Paul, said that the housing shortage in his city was “not dire” and recommended against approval of a planned mixed-use housing project to replace a former shopping mall called Vallco. Developers wanted to convert the 1.2-million-square-foot mall into 2,400 units of housing along with some retail and offices. Paul thought the retail and offices were fine, but opposed the housing.
Just how dire is Cupertino’s housing shortage? The median home value, according to Zillow, is $2.158 million. The median family income is $158,000. That’s a value-to-income ratio of 13.7. Palo Alto’s is higher ($3.01 million to $167,440 for a value-to-income ratio of 18), but I’d still say that Cupertino’s housing market is pretty dire considering that fifty years ago the value-to-income ratios in the Bay Area were less than 2.5.
Paul is being rightly criticized for his insensitivity to the housing problems faced by newcomers who earn $158,000 a year. But the truth is that almost everyone in Cupertino, Palo Alto, and the rest of Santa Clara County are suffering from a blind spot–more of a blind mountain–when it comes to housing issues.
Cupertino is bordered on the west by the Santa Cruz Mountains, which are almost completely undeveloped. In fact, there are hundreds of undeveloped acres in southwest Cupertino itself. Some of this land is parks, but much of it has been arbitrarily ruled off limits to development even if the private owners would like to develop it.
According to the state of California, as of 1996 only about 177,000 acres — less than 18 percent — of Santa Clara County had been developed. The state judges that another 533,000 were unsuitable for development because they are parks, water, or on slopes steeper than 15 percent. Since San Francisco has many fully developed hills steeper than 25 and even 40 percent, the Antiplanner question’s the state’s arbitrary claim that slopes steeper than 15 percent are undevelopable. But even accepting the 15 percent cutoff, that still leaves nearly 300,000 acres — 168 percent of the area of land that has been developed — suitable for development.
The numbers may have changed a little since 1996, but not a lot since the urban-growth boundaries that restrain development haven’t been moved. According to the Census Bureau, 26 percent of the county had been urbanized by 2010, which would still leave at least 200,000 acres of private land on slopes less than 15 percent. Much of that land borders Cupertino and Palo Alto.
The Census Bureau estimates that, as of 2016, Santa Clara County had 665,000 units of housing. Anyone who thinks that building 2,400 more homes — about a third of a percent — will somehow magically make housing affordable is dreaming. California can’t afford such dreams when it is living a nightmare in which median housing in some of the state’s most productive communities costs 13 to 18 times median family incomes.