For the past few months, a guy named Brandon has been living in a truck in Google's parking lot and documenting the experience on his blog. He's a software engineer at Google, a company famous for its generous amenities. Brandon is able to eat meals, take showers, and work out on Google's campus, which he says makes it practical for him to live in the back of a box truck — with no kitchen, running water, or other amenities.
He says he's doing this to save money. Rent for a studio apartment costs around $2,000 per month, he says. The truck cost just $10,000, and his only recurring expense is $121 per month for truck insurance — so just a few months into the experiment, he's already saved more money than he spent on the truck, and he expects to save tens of thousands of dollars over the next few years.
Google's hometown has created massive housing scarcity
Obviously, living in the back of a truck is an unorthodox solution to the problem of high housing costs. But the really crazy thing here is a set of housing policies that have made it impossible for workers like Brandon to find cheap housing.
The majority of the residential areas in Mountain View, where Google's headquarters is located, are zoned for single-family houses. That includes plenty of land that's a short walking distance from shops and even the commuter rail station. Building small, cheap apartments — or even connected rows of adjacent townhouses — in these neighborhoods is illegal.
There are some areas where apartment buildings are allowed, but even here there are strict limits. They can't be taller than 45 feet — about four stories — and an apartment building can't occupy more than 40 percent of the lot on which it's located. And each housing unit needs to include a storage locker and parking.
All of these restrictions limit the number of small, cheap housing units developers can supply. That's why studio apartments in the area cost $2,000 per month — far more than the national median of slightly below $800.
Google has proposed upzoning, with little success
Google has noticed that its younger workers are struggling to find affordable and convenient housing, and has been lobbying the Mountain View city council for permission to build more high-density housing in the northernmost part of Mountain View. But city council members have been hostile to the very idea of providing small, affordable apartments for young workers.
"One thousand units of single-occupancy rooms, that's not a community, that's dorms," council member Ronit Bryant said at a 2012 meeting where Google's proposal was considered. "It's done a lot in China. Huge factories, huge apartment blocks, I don't think everyone lives happily ever after."
No one dreams of living in a tiny apartment forever, of course. But there's nothing wrong with people choosing spartan accommodations when they're young, single, and working long hours at a demanding job — allowing them to save up money they can use to buy a house later on.
Google's workers are suffering, but the working class is suffering a lot more
More importantly, refusing to accommodate Google's growing workforce won't lead to everyone living "happily ever after," either (there's a guy living in a truck, after all). Quite the contrary: By reserving most of its residential land for single-family homes, Mountain View guarantees that there won't be enough housing for everyone who wants to live there. Instead, Google workers have been forced to seek housing further and further afield. Many now have hour-long commutes on Google shuttles that bring them in from San Francisco.
In the process, they've displaced less affluent people in surrounding communities, contributing to a region-wide affordable housing crisis. Indeed, less affluent people are the biggest victims of excessive housing regulations in Mountain View — and other nearby communities that also limit housing development.
Ultimately, engineers at Google will always be able to find housing they can afford — even if they have to take an hour-long trip in a Google shuttle to get to work. By contrast, the people who serve lunch in the Google cafeteria probably can't afford to pay $2,000 per month for a studio apartment — and the authorities probably wouldn't be so forgiving if they tried to sleep in their vehicles in nearby parking lots. So less affluent workers are going to be forced to move even further out to find affordable housing, live in cramped conditions, and endure multiple hours of commuting every day, on buses that are a lot less comfortable than a Google shuttle.