May 11, 2021

San Jose Spotlight Op-Ed: Norris: The intersection of affordable homes and affordable transportation


For Affordable Housing Month 2021, SV@Home is convening our region’s housing partners to host dozens of virtual workshops, webinars, and creative community engagement opportunities to activate and engage our community of housing advocates and the general public about our housing challenges and solutions. What’s the connection between affordable homes and affordable transportation? Check out SV@Home’s Events Calendar to learn about this and a broad range of other topics during the month of May!

BY: Michael Norris┃San Jose Spotlight
PUBLISHED: May 6, 2021

May is Affordable Housing Month, which means there are many events taking place to help you learn about everything happening in affordable housing—and I encourage you to visit Silicon Valley at Home’s calendar page and attend some. If you’ve lived in the Bay Area longer than an hour, you know the lack of affordable housing affects a lot of people.

May is also National Bike Month. This is the month the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition does a membership drive. I renew my membership each May. In fact, six years ago this month, I moved to the Bay Area and, not knowing anyone, I took part in a few SVBC-organized rides to meet people and get to know San Jose better.

Doing this helped me a lot because I found—and still find—San Jose to be big. Biking around a city is like making eye contact with it. You can drive a car on a road a hundred times but still see it differently when you ride a bike on it.

When you ride a bicycle in San Jose, you’re a paradox of speed because you feel faster than a car but—until you have to park—you move slower. Slow enough to smell a bakery before you see it. Slow enough to notice a new shop you can visit. Slow enough to recognize a friend walking down the street and say hello.

You’re also slow enough to notice homeless encampments off to the side of a busy road. Slow enough to see the eye-popping price of a house on the “Take One!” flyer on a realtor sign. Slow enough to notice which cars on the shoulder are “parked” versus which ones are someone’s home.

Not all of these revelations came to me during leisure rides. When I first got married on the East Coast, my wife and I both worked in different cities and owned one car between us. We found bikes, trains and buses were sufficient enough for us to do that. Even though the Bay Area—seemingly by design—demands us to own two cars, we still have just one after 15 years of marriage and several career changes.

I chose the word demands because the current orientation of the Bay Area dictates that you live at Point A and you have nearly no alternative but a car to get to Point B. This model was built long before anyone reading this was even born, and after you’ve used a bike to get to work, a friend’s house and the grocery store enough times—and have saved tens of thousands of dollars over the years of not owning another car—you begin to wonder why the model remains dominant.

You also notice the damage this model brings to people who don’t have the same transportation choices and financial resources as you. A few weeks ago I spent over $500 for an auto mechanic to get to the bottom of a ghastly noise our car was making. I don’t have to make a choice between paying rent and solving car problems, but I can imagine people who are in that position delay that kind of expense as long as possible.

The trouble is the car becomes more dangerous and less reliable until it breaks down, and then the car owner is in for a world of trouble—not just because of the cost but because they have no other way to get to work—and a lot of essential jobs can’t be done from home.

I have lost track of the number of stories I’ve read profiling someone who has ultimately lost their home and their car breaking down was the first domino to fall. So great is the fear of the loss of a car leading to the loss of a job an entire cottage industry of auto-warranty robocalls was born from it (listen to the excellent NPR story of auto-warranty robocalls).

The financial burden of car ownership doesn’t just fall on the driver, it falls on the city as a whole as well. In San Jose, which has a goal of creating more affordable housing, you’ll find the preservation of the house-and-a-car model as an excuse. Every time I hear someone dismiss the construction of affordable housing because they are “worried about traffic” I want to remind them it is possible—and even preferable—to live without a car.

Even though car traffic lowers nearby property values—and the cost per housing unit drops when there are fewer spaces to build—we still hear hollow arguments for preservation and expansion of house-and-a-car model. For example, the San Jose Sharks want 2,000 parking spots but can’t seem to imagine thousands of people safely and happily walking to a game from home or seeing a sea of teal visible through Caltrain windows at Diridon Station.  A few years ago, when San Jose State University said it was going to destroy its historic running track to build a parking garage, I could only shake my head because land in a place as expensive as Silicon Valley can surely be put to better use.

If you have a bike and can ride it safely, please ride it. When you do, think about how much less space in San Jose your bicycle demands compared to a car, how much less expensive it is and how much more space we can have for affordable homes if we had to accommodate fewer cars and build homes close to jobs and transit. Keep thinking about it even after we turn the calendar page, because affordable housing and affordable transportation are both too important for just one month.

Michael Norris is the communications manager at Housing Trust SIlicon Valley and a former member of the San Jose Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. The opinions in this piece are those of the author. He can be found on Twitter @michaelknorris.