On November 15, 2017, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation sponsored “On the Table Silicon Valley,” a one-day event bringing thousands of local people throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to eat and talk about our region’s housing challenges and possible solutions. According to SVCF, more than 700 hosts led conversations with over 6,000 participants.

Second Harvest Food Bank hosted two conversations with 22 participants, mostly employees of the Food Bank. I asked Cindy McCown, Vice President of Community Engagement and Policy, why Second Harvest got involved.

“The event piqued our interest because housing is such a huge factor in the lives of the people that we touch,” she replied. “We chose to do it internally with our diverse staff because it allowed us to have a different kind of conversation on how housing has impacted their lives. We did one in each of our two counties to get a broader perspective because while there’s some overlap, there’s also nuances – different initiatives, different organizations addressing these issues in our two county service area.”

When I initially received the invitation to participate, I saw it as an opportunity to get out of my marketing and communications mind-set for an hour to think about how the housing situation is impacting me personally and to get to know my coworkers a bit more. I ended up attending the session at our Bing Center in San Carlos.

According to a 2017 poll, respondents cited housing costs as the top problem facing the region, with 40 percent indicating they were likely to leave the Bay Area in the next few years. Source: San Mateo County, Home for All Website

Why do we want to stay in the bay area? My group had many reasons, from how beautiful it is here with great weather, to easy access to nature and city, to job opportunities, to diversity. But just as the datapoint above notes, many of us are thinking about what could happen within the next few years to make us finally leave behind the terrible traffic and high cost of living. It’s a consistent question – what is that tipping point?

As we dove deeper into the topic, it became apparent that there was an over-all sense of pessimism and sadness among the group. Many of us were Bay Area natives who were uncertain about if we could ever be homeowners here and who are seeing family members and other loved ones leave the area. There was fear of not having a good quality of life and no ceiling for housing costs, with wages never catching up. Housing was impacting our choices, such as when to start a family and have children or how far were we willing to commute. Just like many of our clients, a bunch of us were also struggling from paycheck to paycheck.

Between 2010 and 2014, 182,800 new jobs were created in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, while only 16,262 housing units were built. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates; California Employment Development Department

These conversations to identify housing solutions seemed like an overwhelming task. Sure, we could talk about our own housing situations, but solutions? What could we possibly think of that could solve the housing problem in our area?

Nearly one-third of Bay Area commuters cross county lines to get to work. The average Silicon Valley commuter spends 1 hour and 10 minutes traveling to and from work. Note: Length of commute includes San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties Source: Silicon Valley Competitiveness and Innovation Project – 2017 Report and U.S. Census, Bureau, 2015 American Community Survey, 1 Year Estimates, PUMS

Some of the big ideas that came out of both groups included collaborating across counties (it’s a regional issue that requires regional collaboration) for housing, transportation, land use; challenging companies that bring in workers from outside our community to do more; and providing more incentives for new developments to include affordable housing. There’s also the sense that many communities are anti-new developments and there’s a need for people to roll up their sleeves and help build consensus on solutions.

The power of the individual kept coming up – to be more informed, to vote, to speak up, to help build that consensus. There were calls for people to try not to be angry at all the new people coming in, to trust that everyone has good intentions and many aren’t aware of the problems our communities are facing. We as individuals have to help raise awareness. It will take a lot of effort, but we have to start somewhere to get anywhere.

As far as what Second Harvest can do, Cindy McCown offered this: “As we move forward with education and health systems, we’re bringing up the food part of that, how housing and health intersects with food. We’ll continue to have these conversations with clients, agencies and elected officials as we get more active on this issue. We’re staying true to our strategic plan of wanting to have that visibility – we are bringing in the voice of hunger. When housing is built, how will people get food or get to the grocery store? Housing is not an isolated issue.”

*** Check out our Hunger Action Center to learn more about our community engagement and policy work and how you can get involved.