East Palo Alto: Uneven Prosperity and the Need for a Green Economy in Silicon Valley

East Palo Alto: Uneven Prosperity and the Need for a Green Economy in Silicon Valley

By Katyayani Rajput, September 2015.

Ingenuity in Silicon Valley has been instrumental in driving the Bay Area towards innovation and economic boom. And while technological expansion has created jobs and monetary benefits to the Valley, there exists a 2.6 square-mile land area that is nestled between Menlo Park, Redwood City and Palo Alto that was bypassed by this growth. This is the City of East Palo Alto, a city that has been historically disadvantaged with unjust housing laws and racial segregation. A city faced with many lessons in resiliency, the community has a strong history to prove its dynamism. Yet under the lens, this city shows a staggering level of economic disparity in contrast to its affluent neighboring cities.

east palo alto
Map showing East Palo Alto and its neighbors – Palo Alto, Mountain View, Atherton and Redwood City.

Widening Prosperity Gap in East Palo Alto

East Palo Alto is a racially diverse city whose predominant population has shifted over time. In the 1960s, it was primarily an African-American dominated community, but it now has an Hispanic/Latino majority. In the 2010 Bay Area Census data, the top racial makeup of the city indicated 64% Hispanic/Latino, 16% Black, and 11% Asian/Pacific Islander. What is most striking about the city’s population in recent history is how little of Silicon Valley’s prosperity and wealth has percolated into East Palo Alto. In the same census, the median family income in East Palo Alto is less than $50,000, while in Palo Alto, home to Stanford University and separated only by highway US-101, is north of $160,000. The stark difference in median income is not an outlier but rather a repeating pattern since the 1970s.  A closer look at the nominal income of East Palo Alto and its neighboring cities since 1970 to 2010 shows that while the median family income dramatically increased over the last two decades in all Bay Area cities, East Palo Alto is the only city that experienced stunted growth relative to its wealthy neighbors.

Growing inequality in educational attainment is another symptom of a widening income gap. Per classic economic theory, education is the catalyst that triggers great inventions, innovation, and economic development. In case of the Bay Area where demand for skilled workers soared in the past 20 years, this holds true except in the City of East Palo Alto, where the highest level of education attained by over a third of its adult populace is a high school diploma. Low levels of learning by the City’s most educated majority is also reflected in a very high percentage of blue collar jobs, a stark contrast to a large majority of white-collar jobs in the surrounding cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Mountain View.

east palo alto
Graph showing median family nominal income growth patterns, between 1970-2010s. Source:
Bay Area Census (1970-2000), American Community Survey (2006-2010) as listed in Bay Area Census.

These statistics reveal a picture of a struggling East Palo Alto vis-a-vis the flourishing growth and economic advancement of its wealthy neighbors. The technology revolution that started in the 1970s and rewarded Bay Area cities with wealth and prosperity largely eluded the City of East Palo Alto. This circle of poverty continues to affect East Palo Alto, where low income levels is affected by low education attainment and persisting lack of employment opportunities. However, an emerging green economy offers opportunities for low income residents in East Palo Alto to break this cycle and benefit from financial savings, improvement in quality of life, and potential job opportunities.

These statistics reveal a picture of a struggling East Palo Alto vis-a-vis the flourishing growth and economic advancement of its wealthy neighbors. The technology revolution that started in the 1970s and rewarded Bay Area cities with wealth and prosperity largely eluded the City of East Palo Alto. This circle of poverty continues to affect East Palo Alto, where low income levels is affected by low education attainment and persisting lack of employment opportunities. However, an emerging green economy offers opportunities for low income residents in East Palo Alto to break this cycle and benefit from financial savings, improvement in quality of life, and potential job opportunities.

Transitioning to a Green Economy

The green economy, as defined by the United Nations Environmental Program, results in the sustainable development and reduction of environmental risk and promotes efficient uses of energy, energy conservation, and renewable power generation. The truth is many low income residents often do not have the economic means nor knowledge to transition into the green economy. However, simple energy upgrades and retrofits to make homes more energy efficient is one of many ways to take part in the green economy. Energy efficiency not only addresses the bigger issues of carbon reduction and climate change, it also reduces the burden of high utility bills that occupy a significant percentage of their monthly income and provides a much-needed cash relief for low income families. There exists a need for an action-oriented community initiative that help these disadvantaged communities to usher in a green economy.  

Net Positive Bay Area’s Low Income Energy Efficiency Program identifies opportunities for low income communities to help incorporate energy efficient changes in their homes that directly result in reducing utility bills and lowering carbon emissions. The East Palo Alto pilot project will be the first step towards the creation of a string of Net Positive cities in the Bay Area. This initiative serves as a framework to spark a common vision toward a regional energy strategy, and to catalyze systemic change in advancing sustainable cities in the Silicon Valley region and beyond.

In this first step toward a green future, Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV) will work with homeowners in East Palo Alto to receive free energy audits for their residential homes. The program aims to provide a number of energy saving recommendations, including (but not limited to) residential energy efficiencies deployment, renewable energy education, and community transition to solar energy production and use.

Currently, many free and low cost programs are offered by public utility companies, local and state government to assist low income homeowners and renters with disproportionately high monthly energy bills. The government-funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs (LIHEAP) are, while well-intended, have very low takeup from low income households due to a variety of reasons that include lack of trust, unawareness from lack of communication and resistance to change. SSV intends to break these barriers by offering programs to households through community educational outreach and by working closely with well-established community organizations to build trust.

SSV’s Low Income Energy Efficiency Program’s multi-pronged approach offers both residents and communities free services that identify bottlenecks to potential long term energy savings. Working with community partners, simple home energy upgrades and retrofit solutions will be made affordable to low income families to achieve a reduction of their monthly utility bills. Resulting savings can alleviate critical cash shortages and allow greater freedom to direct additional spending toward dire household needs to improve their quality of life, including healthcare, education, and general social well-being.