Welcome to Fight or Flight, a new podcast that explores what we all really do when the pressure’s on. For our first episode we decided to talk to Kate Downing, a small-time city government official who went rogue—and then viral—when she published her scathing resignation letter online. Her mic drop brought renewed attention to Silicon Valley’s housing crisis, months before a pivotal local election.
When you think of affordable housing crises, Downing’s not exactly the victim who comes to mind. She’s a corporate lawyer and Jewish refugee who identifies as a top two percent income earner. Downing and her husband moved to Palo Alto five years ago for positions at tech companies, and she spent two of those years serving on the city’s Planning and Transportation Commission, which recommends zoning reforms and housing policies.
Despite her wealth and local influence, Downing announced in her resignation letter, published August 9, that she and her husband were moving to Santa Cruz. She claimed in the letter that they couldn’t afford to buy a “middle-class” home in Palo Alto.
“It’s clear that if professionals like me cannot raise a family here, then all of our teachers, first responders, and service workers are in dire straits,” wrote Downing.
Palo Alto is arguably at the heart of the Bay Area’s affordable housing crisis. Over the past several decades, the boom in Silicon Valley has attracted hundreds of thousands of new tech workers, and housing development hasn’t kept up. The rents and prices on the housing that is available is skyrocketing, pushing working class, middle class and upper middle class residents out of their communities. Downing argues that Silicon Valley’s cities need to build more housing—fast—to bring them back down.
“[People] who work in Palo Alto, Mountain View, they push out the people who are in SF,” Downing said in our interview. “Those people in SF, they push out people in Oakland. How far are they supposed to drive? If the professional is only supposed to drive a half and hour, how far is the teacher supposed to drive? How far is the electrician supposed to drive?
“At what point do we say this is too much, this is insane?”
Downing’s political opponents in Palo Alto are suspicious of her argument. An organized group of homeowners who call themselves the Residentialists claim that increased housing development would ruin the character of their city, and they’re skeptical that it would actually help the underprivileged residents who need it most.
They also accuse Downing of hypocritically acting in her own financial self-interest. Zelda Bronstein is a Berkeley-based journalist and housing advocate who’s worked closely with Palo Alto’s Residentialists. In an extensive response to Downing’s resignation letter, she published previously unseen details about Downing’s new home in Santa Cruz. It’s a four-bedroom, 2.5 bath house with a view of the beach, which she and her husband bought for $1.5 million.
“She was not forthright about what she was doing,” said Bronstein in an interview. “Kate Downing wants a starter house in Palo Alto to be a four bedroom 2 and a half bath house. That’s ridiculous!”
Of course, Downing claims that the Residentialists are acting in their own self interest as well. The tech boom has made them “land rich”—their homes are now worth millions of dollars, and more development would decrease that value. The housing fight in Palo Alto quickly escalated into a fight between privileged techies and wealthier homeowners over what policies best for poor people.
You can listen to an excerpt from our interview with Bronstein here: