Downtown Palo Alto
A row is brewing in Palo Alto over who to blame for the shortage in affordable housing and commercial space, which is pushing people out of the downtown areaAllie Caulfield, Flickr

The mayor of Palo Alto is at the centre of a big row over whether or not tech firms should still be welcome in the city, due to concerns that Silicon Valley is making the area not very nice for non-tech people to live in.

The problem started in August when Kate Vershov Downing, the planning commissioner of Palo Alto, made the news by resigning and writing an open letter on Medium.com explaining that she could no longer hold her permission because she and her family couldn't afford to live in Palo Alto anymore.

"After many years of trying to make it work in Palo Alto, my husband and I cannot see a way to stay in Palo Alto and raise a family here," Downing wrote, claiming that the City Council of Palo Alto had repeatedly ignored calls by citizens to make housing a top priority.

"We rent our current home with another couple for $6200 a month; if we wanted to buy the same home and share it with children and not roommates, it would cost $2.7m and our monthly payment would be $12,177 a month in mortgage, taxes, and insurance.

"That's $146,127 per year — an entire professional's income before taxes. This is unaffordable even for an attorney and a software engineer."

In response to this, Palo Alto mayor Patrick Burt told local San Francisco news site Curbed that the area was currently seeing an "extremely high job growth" that is not sustainable, due to tech firms and their employees causing demand for homes and offices to spill out of downtown Palo Alto to encompass the whole Bay Area, meaning that there isn't enough space for commercial activities, let alone affordable housing.

Burt said that the only way to stop this is to restrain the rate of job growth and to increase the fees charged to building developers so that the money could be invested back into affordable housing. But the issue has now snowballed, because the mayor allegedly told the New York Times that he would like to enforce a ban on all businesses that focus on research and development, specifically software coding.

The Times also noted complaints that mobile reception is pretty poor in Palo Alto and calls often drop, due to too many people being on the network at the same time, in the one area in the world where you would think that wireless coverage shouldn't be a problem.

So what's really going on?

Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt
Mayor Patrick Burt says the explosion in jobs from Silicon Valley is making life unsustainable for Palo Alto and in fact affecting the entire Bay areaCity of Palo Alto

Downing stressed in her open letter that Palo Alto is fast becoming a city that only millionaires can afford to live in, which is affecting local communities by driving out young families. The issue has been mentioned before, but it is finally becoming an issue that City Hall can't ignore.

Nevertheless, Burt says he was misquoted by the Times – he told TechCrunch that he doesn't intend to ban tech companies per say; rather he wants to prevent "larger companies" from "taking over nearly all office space that becomes available", which is making it harder for start-ups and local businesses to compete, meaning they are being driven out of downtown Palo Alto.

So essentially what the mayor really means is that he wants to get rid of tech conglomerates that try to set up big campuses – San Francisco daily news site 48 Hills claims the company that the council is annoyed at is Palantir – and that if better rules could be implemented, the situation might improve.

However, he told Curbed that Palo Alto has always been an expensive area to live in since the 1960s, and that the transportation needs to be improved and zones of the city widened so that homes can be built in areas where there is currently only low density development.

And as for the mobile reception issue, it seems that residents have been suing to try to make it as difficult as possible for mobile operators to install new mobile base stations in the city, meaning that the existing base stations are overloaded by ever increasing mobile voice and data demands.

In March, a group of residents tried to prevent a 5ft-tall mobile base station from being installed at a Little League baseball field in Palo Alto, but eventually failed when city officials provided the judge with sufficient proof that the new base station would greatly improve wireless coverage for the 15,000 residents living in a two-square-mile area near the sports field.