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[whitespace] Local movers and shakers turn to Silicon Valley for housing tips

By Janet Wells

HOW DOES Silicon Valley--an area that is fueling Sonoma County's own housing market--grapple with the highest housing prices in the nation? With a program as innovative as its microchips. In 1978, hi-tech industrialist David Packard formed a group of private employers willing to tackle economic and social issues in the South Bay region. Stratospheric housing prices that emerged in the wake of Silicon Valley's high-tech boom are just part of the group's focus, along with transportation, education, and the environment.

Today the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group has 145 member companies who pony up annual fees ranging from $1,125 to $33,000 to help find a solution to what the group's CEO Carl Guardino says is "the most critical issue bar none facing Silicon Valley to date."

With San Jose-based businesses and high-tech workers moving into the North Bay--and pushing up prices in the local housing market--local telecom industry representatives and elected officials are turningto SVMG as a model for reining in growth in Sonoma County.

The Santa Clara Valley bears a daunting shortfall of 100,000 affordable homes. Once prospective employees see the housing prices, many say "no thanks" to relocating to Silicon Valley. And there is a steady bleed of employees--as well as employers--fleeing the region in search of a more affordable lifestyle, Guardino says.

The key to the manufacturing group's success isn't just to throw money at the problem. The group's grassroots Housing Action Coalition program provides volunteers --usually from member companies--who attend local and county zoning, planning, and council meetings to cheerlead for housing projects that meet the group's quality-control criteria. "The best-laid plans, without proper support, can be completely dismissed by councils and planning commissions," says the group's director of communications, Christina Perry, adding that local officials often hear only from neighbors opposed to a development going in near their homes.

Housing Action Coalition advocacy makes the difference, says Guardino.

"We recognize a good development, and we're providing a voice from that very neighborhood. That has such an impact--to hear a constituent's view," he says.

At a recent breakfast meeting in Santa Rosa, Guardino told Sonoma County officials and affordable-housing advocates that the group has endorsed 73 housing developments. All but one of the projects received approval, bringing 23,000 new homes to the region.

The SVMG's latest goal is to raise $20 million to help 5,000 families in three categories: first-time home buyers, affordable rental housing, and homeless assistance. Before the program was even launched in July, five local employers, the county, and the city of San Jose had kicked in $4 million. Intel has since contributed $1 million.

"We have a unique environment in Silicon Valley, with entrepreneurs who want innovative solutions to problems," Perry says. "Another area could certainly benefit from employers working together with the community to grow sustainably. It's a solution we have to be considering everywhere."

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From the January 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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