With Google developers now living in their cars, is Silicon Valley going to drive tech talent out?

Highly paid software developers helped drive up Bay Area rents, and now even they can't afford to live here. Is this a threat to the future of Silicon Valley?

Google employees living in their cars

A disturbing and ironic new trend has come to light in the San Francisco Bay Area – highly paid software developers, widely blamed for driving up housing prices during the current tech boom, are now finding themselves priced out of the market.

We may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, but that's the impression painted by recent stories about a couple of programmers—apparently working for Google—who have chosen to save money and commute time by living in buses and trucks instead of apartments.

One story concerns Katharine Patterson, who blogs about her experiences living in a rusty 1969 VW bus she calls Jamal Jr (JJ for short) on San Francisco streets. Patterson doesn't say what company she works for, but SFGate reports finding a LinkedIn profile for someone with the same name and job title working at Google.

The other story involves a young Googler named “Brandon” living in a 2006 Ford truck in the company's Mountain View, CA, parking lot. According to Business Insider and Brandon's own blog, he paid $10,000 for the truck and has recently passed the break-even point by saving rent.

Both Katherine and Brandon have garnered a huge amount of attention for their living arrangements, but I'm not too worried about them. They use their companies' facilities to shower and stay presentable, and they could easily choose more conventional apartments if so inclined. They also seem to be quite self-aware of the implications of their choices… including how the situation might be perceived by someone who had no choice but to live in a car.

But I'm willing to bet there are plenty of other people living in vehicles in technology company parking lots. In fact, I've discussed the idea with a few people, who agree that it may be fairly common, even though most companies discourage the practice.

The point is that this situation raises some serious questions about the sustainability of the Silicon Value boom currently drawing in talent from around the world. If the “winners” in this game—young engineers with lucrative jobs at top companies—still can't afford to live indoors in the Bay Area, how is the Valley going to continue to attract the entrepreneurs and strivers and dreamers and support workers and everyone else who helps make this unique ecosystem possible? Not to mention how long the rest of the population—who may not be making big tech bucks—is going to put up with being displaced by the newcomers.

I've always believed that Silicon Valley would never lose its position as “Ground Zero” for tech innovation. Thanks to the drought the weather here has been gorgeous just about every day, and the opportunities are unmatched. Ambitious techies have proved that they'll put up with a lot to get ahead.

But my confidence is beginning to waver a bit. If I was a young techie looking to make my mark in 2015, I'd have to start considering the Silicon Forest (Portland) or Silicon Beach (LA) or Silicon Alley (New York) or even Silicon Prairie (the Midwest). Heck, compared to living in your car, Europe or Singapore look pretty good, too. Even if salaries are lower, at least you can afford a roof over your head while you change the world with a new way to order burritos.

The governments and companies who run the Valley have long paid lip service to the notion that they need to make sure the Bay Area is affordable, but as long as the folks being priced out weren't the ones they really cared about, nothing much got done. If the group of people affected expands to include workers companies actually need and want, maybe the powers that be will finally try to take some action.

Of course, it's not clear exactly what should be done, but the future of Silicon Valley's pre-eminent place in the tech world could be at stake.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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