A Tale of Two Cities: An Analogy for California’s Housing Hypocrisy
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
By Andrew Xiao
At first glance, 280 Stanford Ave doesn’t offer much to the eyes. The 908-square-foot, two-bedroom home nestled in Palo Alto, California, with its decaying 1913 design looks nowhere near its 3 million dollar valuation. When the property was sold for just short of 2.6 million in 2017, it served as a striking depiction of the affordable housing crisis plaguing California.
Located in the hills south of San Francisco, Palo Alto, the so-called “birthplace of Silicon Valley,” stands as a poster child for California’s affordable housing crisis. With its median household income more than double the national average, the city finds itself home to many working in the world’s most affluent tech companies — its list of residents including Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Steve Jobs. Home to the prestigious Stanford University, Palo Alto stands as the picture-perfect Californian suburb, a manifestation of the “Silicon Valley Dream.” However, just a stone’s throw away across the Highway 101 overpass — the de facto border between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto — lies a city where 18% of residents live below the poverty line, and where a 1992 study declared the city the per-capita murder leader of the United States. Driving along Stanford Ave, the white-picket fences of multi-million-dollar McMansions are interrupted by graffitied, vacant homes; as one Palo Alto resident describes, “When you see million-dollar homes next to our homeless shelters, that’s gentrification on steroids.”
The discrepancies between the two cities are stupefying: a history of redlining, gentrification, and racist housing deeds have created the conditions for a vast educational and structural disparity. In 2020, the city budget for Palo Alto stood at an estimated 17 times more than that of East Palo Alto’s. Disparities in education, policing, and city services measure the divide; if someone in Palo Alto was to get into a car accident, or their house was to catch on fire, first responders respond 220% faster compared to East Palo Alto’s. With internal reform and a new era of community policing in the late 90s, East Palo Alto has since made steps in lowering the crime rate, albeit on a stunted budget.
With public services standing as a measure of inequality, schooling falls as no exception. Funded by the property tax sourced from their neighborhoods, the discrepancies are harsher than one could predict. In neighborhoods in Palo Alto, students attend an almost private school-like facility, complete with an indoor gymnasium and an Olympic size swimming pool— and the school boasts a plethora of alumni attending prestigious ivy-league universities all across the U.S. On the other hand, East Palo Alto high schools are consistently underfunded and have to constantly shut down schools in order to stay within budget. A 2010 California Department of Education Study landed 3 schools on the "preliminary" list of the state's worst-performing schools.
While this level of exacerbated inequality isn’t unheard of — such as a viral NYT Article detailing issues in the border city of Nogales, Arizona — East Palo Alto isn’t defined by a set political border, falling under the same jurisdiction and statehouses as its neighbors.
Image Source: Center for Community Innovation
With Gini Index rates on par with those of South Africa and the Central African Republic, Palo Alto raises questions on how a city, predominantly progressive in nature, has proliferated such an issue of inequality. As is apparent, affordable housing stands at the forefront of the democratic vision, the quip “housing is a human right” preached by party heads and voters alike, with no exception for those in Palo Alto. However, what’s preached in Palo Alto is far from practiced — when it came to voting on state senate bill 50, a proposition to construct affordable housing near public transit stations, the predominantly liberal residents of Palo Alto voted against the bill, effectively killing the project.
The absolute hypocrisy is apparent. While such residents won’t bat an eye to vote blue, or put-up lawn signs, they continuously fight to keep up the unaffordable valuation of their homes — many of which were purchased in the 1960s and the 70s. In almost any Palo Alto city council, the same song finds itself sung, “we have the hearts and the minds to do this, just not in my backyard.”
The truth is evident: The neighborhood where one is born serves as a massive influential aspect of a person’s upbringing, and the conditions and environment around them play a huge role in the rest of their life. Defunct housing policy has struck at the most vulnerable — the kids who have the greatest needs, end up having the fewest resources, creating a permanent disadvantage for growth. Yes, redlining and gentrification play their part in the massive disparity between the wealthy and the poor in these two cities. But at the end of the day, they are only excuses that the elites hide behind. They say it's the effects of gentrification while they throw their neighbors to the wolves so that their houses stay pricey. They blame redlining while they check “no” time and time again on their ballots to help those in need. They preach equality and second chances during the day, then turn their backs on anyone poorer than them during the night. “The forces of gentrification are so intense, they are hard to stop” long-time East Palo Alto resident and City Councilman Ruben Abrica writes, “All we can do is mitigate it, slow it down. The city government has put in place many things that can help but still, in the midst of all this, disastrous economic inequality is going on.” In Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, the two cities paint a realistic, striking side-by-side portrayal of inequality in America.