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In Apple’s hometown of Cupertino, a debate over the fate of an old mall epitomizes Silicon Valley’s class divide

Who gets to live in one of Silicon Valley’s richest cities?

Artist’s rendering of a new shopping street
This is what the development could look like.
Sand Hill Property Company
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

Many cities would jump at the chance to get more high-paying tech jobs, retail stores and housing units.

Not Cupertino.

This past week, residents of Apple’s hometown argued over the future of their city. A plan to develop a vacant shopping mall into a mixed-use development full of high-density housing — including a potentially record-setting 1,201 affordable units — divided locals and housing advocates in a debate that drew out class tension in one of the most expensive places to live, amid years of massive growth of nearby tech companies.

“I’m frustrated that despite having a fairly well-paying job, I can barely afford to rent in Cupertino,” said Marie Liu, a software engineer, at a recent city council meeting. “If we want our city to have a diverse and healthy community, we need to allow more people to live here, we need to allow more people to live here by providing more affordable housing units.”

Locals who oppose the development say their city doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the crowds that will come with the new high-density housing and offices. But housing advocates say that in a town where the average home costs over $2 million — an 18.9 percent increase from just the year before — and the average one-bedroom apartment rents for around $2,800 a month, the proposed development is badly needed to keep low- and middle-income citizens in the area.

“You see this play out in developments across the Bay Area and everywhere, where you see this belief that bringing affordable housing is going to bring down the neighborhood — people don’t want it in their backyard,” Richard Mehlinger, a nearby Sunnyvale resident who’s affiliated with the pro-housing development movement YIMBY, said in an interview with Recode.

During the public comments section at a Cupertino City Council meeting Tuesday night, one young speaker against the development shared fears about people of lesser means moving into a city where the median household income is around $147,929.

“According to the sales pitch, the new housing units would include low-income high-density housing apartments,” read a slide that accompanied his speech. “This would mean that we would have uneducated people living in Cupertino. A lot of other residents and I are concerned that this would make the current residents of Cupertino uncomfortable, and would split our city in half.”

Cupertino’s Mayor Darcy Paul wrote off the comments as being made by “a kid — a teenager” when speaking with Recode and said that “the vast majority of our residents are supportive of housing solutions” — but that they have well-founded concerns over the increased traffic and overcrowding in schools that further development could bring.

Paul, who voted against a proposed development plan at Wednesday’s city council meeting, argued that the affordable housing units are just a “short-term fix” and that the proposal to build new offices could create thousands more new jobs than there would be affordable housing units.

“What you’re ending up doing when you artificially boost the market in this manner is that you’re creating some people that get the benefit, but creating a much larger percentage that might get displaced,” Paul said.

David Meyer, who works for the housing advocacy organization Silicon Valley at Home, said the concerns Paul shared are valid. But in his interactions with local residents, he’s also encountered an unfair stigma attached to the concept of affordable housing.

“People hear ‘affordable housing’ or ‘low income’ and certain things jump to people’s minds. What we try to focus on is that these people are all members of our community, and so many people are doing critical jobs to how we live our daily lives — those people need somewhere to live,” Meyer said.

Ultimately, the Cupertino City Council on Wednesday voted in favor of a modified city-led specific plan to propose to developers — one with a lower allocation for affordable housing than the developer’s initial proposal and a number of other community benefits such as a new city hall, performing arts center and special funds for public schools.

It will now be up to the developer, Sand Hill Property Company, whether to go with the new plan — which has 667 fewer units of affordable housing but more tiers for low-income and middle-income residents — or their original one. Due to a recent CA state law that streamlines development plans that allocate 50 percent or more of new residential units to affordable housing, the developers don’t need city approval for their original plan.

The developer has said that from a financial perspective, the city’s plan is roughly as profitable as the one they proposed — both are on the “razor’s edge of viability” — and would prefer to choose the plan with wider community support. In the meantime, a slow-growth development group called Better Cupertino has discussed filing a lawsuit or issuing a referendum to halt any project from moving forward.

One speaker at Wednesday’s city council meeting, Neil Struthers — the former head of Silicon Valley’s construction workers’ labor union — said he feels Better Cupertino’s stance is against building housing no matter how great the benefits.

“This is an opportunity to offer more housing — it’s a supply and demand issue. I think even if the developer were to offer up a cure for cancer, Better Cupertino would find a way to oppose it.”

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