We found which Bay Area cities aren't pulling their weight on housing

Those comments followed the resignation of Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commissioner Kate Vershov Downing, who wrote in an open letter that, among other things, high housing prices pushed her and her family out of the city and were, to put in mildly, a little controversial.

At its heart, it’s a simple idea: City and regional planners ought to manage growth to achieve an appropriate ratio housing units and jobs. Too far one way or the other is no good.

While Burt may have drawn heat, he’s far from the only policymaker—or everyday person—in the Bay Area to wonder about the balance between jobs and housing. At its heart, it’s a simple idea: City and regional planners ought to manage growth to achieve an appropriate ratio housing units and jobs. Too far one way or the other is no good. The cities where the jobs are ought to have housing, too.

When you look at the data, the cities that score the worst in building enough housing units for their workers aren’t Palo Alto and similar cities. It’s our biggest cities, like San Francisco and San Jose, that really drive the problem.

Here’s what we found.

We pulled numbers from the State of California’s Department of Finance, which publishes yearly estimates of the number of housing units in each city in California and the state’s Economic Development Department, which keeps monthly estimates on the labor market.

We built a database that compares the number of housing units in each city in 2016 with the number of employed people living there as of July 1, 2016 (in both cases, those were the most recent data available.) From there, we simply divided the one by the other. The results were startling.

For the entire Bay Area in 2016, there were 3.6 million employed people and 2.6 million units of housing. That means we had just a little more than 1.0 million more jobs than housing units, or a ratio of 0.71 jobs to units of housing. (What’s the right ratio to have? 1.0? Higher? Lower? We have no idea. All we are looking at is the relative differences across the Bay Area.)

Let’s break those numbers down county by county.

Counties in the North Bay tended to have higher housing to jobs ratios, while counties in the South Bay had lower, with the East Bay and San Francisco landing somewhere in the middle. Sonoma and Marin Counties had ratios of 1.15 and 1.12 housing units per job, while San Mateo and Santa Clara had ratios of 0.70 and 0.6 housing units per job. San Francisco County had a ratio of 0.71 jobs per housing unit, the same as the Bay Area as a whole.

That’s a good clue to magnify which areas are out of balance. But because different counties have different population sizes, it’s also helpful to look at the raw numbers. Here are the differences between jobs and housing for each county. (For this, we subtracted the number of housing units from the number of jobs.)

Looking at it both ways, there are three tiers to consider.

One, the counties that are furthest out of balance makes up Santa Clara, San Francisco, Alameda, and San Mateo. These are the counties with either low ratios or a high absolute difference between jobs and housing. Second, there are the counties with relatively lower overhangs—specifically, Contra Costa and Solano.

Third, there are the counties with very small differences or more housing than jobs—in this case, Napa, Marin, and Sonoma.

So looking regionally, we can say that of the nine Bay Area counties, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Alameda counties have way more jobs than housing, while Sonoma and Marin have way more housing than jobs. The other counties are in between.

That’s a big regional variation and that’s a good indicator of where policymakers should be looking to fix things (i.e., SF and the South Bay). However, we can make an even more granular analysis.

Let’s break apart those numbers city-by-city, rather than county-by-county. We ran the numbers for 93 cities in the Bay Area, excluding some tiny places that didn’t appear in the data (Most of those small towns were in the North Bay, like Bolinas, Marshall, or Olema.)

Here’s what we found, broken out by city.

As you can see, some cities had relatively high ratios of jobs to housing and some don’t. Let’s talk about those outliers.

Since the distribution kind of follows the normal curve (although it’s hardly perfect), we’ll call the most balanced cities as those one or more standard deviations above the median and the most imbalanced as those at one or more standard deviations the other way. These are the cities on the far right and left sides of the chart.

The most balanced areas were: Emeryville (0.95), Healdsburg (0.88), Larkspur (0.97), Mill Valley (0.87), Rio Vista (1.57), Sausalito (0.92), Sonoma (1.07), St. Helena (0.95), and Walnut Creek (1.01). It seems a little strange to have Rio Vista on that list, given how far out of balance that they are the other way.

They show up on the list thanks to a massive 11.8% unemployment rate, whereas Walnut Creek’s stood at 3.4%. Not all of these cities are created equal. Rio Vista has a very high unemployment rate—11.8%—while Walnut Creek has a very low one—3.4%—but taken as a whole, these are the cities in which the amount of housing most closely balances with the amount of jobs.

On the other hand, the most imbalanced cities were American Canyon (0.58), Daly City (0.53), East Palo Alto (0.54), Newark (0.58), and South San Francisco (0.58). Some, but not all, of these cities have higher rates of unemployment. For instance, East Palo Alto at 5.5% or American Canyon at 5.0%, but taken as a whole, these are the cities in which the number of housing units is lowest compared to the number of jobs.

Turns out that Palo Alto, at a ratio of 0.82 housing units per jobs, is a little more balanced than the Bay Area as a whole.

Turns out that Palo Alto, at a ratio of 0.82 housing units per jobs, is a little more balanced than the Bay Area as a whole. (The pricey city's unemployment rate of 2.9% is also very low.)

Not so for East Palo Alto, which scores much lower on jobs-housing balance. In other words, what looks like a problem for Mayor Burt in Palo Alto doesn’t look as much like an issue in the total context of the Bay Area—but it does seem like an issue for East Palo Alto’s mayor.

However, since different cities have different population sizes, let’s cut the data one last way. After all, that 0.71 that Millbrae scores affects the Bay Area a lot less than the 0.71 that San Francisco has. So let’s look at the raw difference between jobs and housing, not the ratio, to see what we can learn.

Now that’s pretty interesting—and changes the story. Let’s talk about the top ten most imbalanced cities.

What we had assumed would be a story about the Peninsula and South Bay turns out to be quite different. The top ten cities that have the fewest houses for their jobs have a total of 570,776 more jobs than housing units. That’s 54% of the Bay Area’s gap between jobs and housing. Of these cities, five are in the South Bay, three in the East Bay, one in the North Bay, and one—San Francisco—in the West Bay.

In other words, the jobs-housing imbalance problem is being driven by the region’s largest cities, especially San Jose and San Francisco.

By far, the most egregiously imbalanced cities in the Bay Area are San Jose, which has 203,576 more jobs than housing units, and San Francisco, which has 154,595 more jobs than housing units. By comparison, the imbalance for the entire rest of the Bay Area is 692,864 more jobs than housing units. So, those two cities alone account for 34% of the Bay Area’s jobs to housing imbalance.

By far, the most egregiously imbalanced cities in the Bay Area are San Jose, which has 203,576 more jobs than housing units, and San Francisco, which has 154,595 more jobs than housing units.

Compared to them, Palo Alto’s imbalance—i.e., 6,381 more jobs than housing units—doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. (That doesn’t mean that smaller cities were found to have more balanced ratios. On the whole, city size didn’t affect that outcome.

But it does mean that an imbalance in a large city weighs more than an imbalance in a small city.) It’s also interesting that Fremont, which has on the order of half the population of Oakland, has a greater imbalance than Oakland does.

Now we can draw some solid conclusions. If you had a magic wand to instantly change the housing-jobs imbalance in the Bay Area, but you could only wave it at a few cities, you would pick San Jose and San Francisco, and then several of the mid-sized cities in South and East Bay.

If you had to wave that same wand at a region, you might either pick San Francisco or the South Bay. (You might also take a pass over the cities in the East Bay south of Oakland.) And it if you had to look for a city that might hold clues for what a more balanced job-housing market looks like, you might want to head to Walnut Creek.

That’s not to say that Mayor Burt gets let off the hook. But it turns out that the jobs-housing imbalance is a lot bigger than just one city in the South Bay. And solving it will take ample amounts of time and coordination.

Edited by Brock Keeling


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