SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook said Tuesday it would give $1 billion in a package of grants, loans and land toward easing California’s severe housing crunch by building an estimated 20,000 new housing units for middle- and lower-income households.
The move is the latest in a series of efforts by technology companies to put their vast financial resources toward addressing a crisis that has afflicted tech centers, including the Bay Area and Seattle. In June, Google pledged $1 billion in a similar effort in the Bay Area, while Microsoft pledged $500 million toward affordable housing in Seattle in January.
Facebook said in a statement that the money would be used over the next decade. The package includes these elements: a $250 million partnership with the state of California for mixed-income housing on state land, $150 million for subsidized and supportive housing for homeless people in the Bay Area, $250 million worth of land near its headquarters in Menlo Park and $25 million for teacher housing in the Silicon Valley, along with $350 million that the company said would be spent based on the effectiveness of the programs.
“Our investment will go toward creating up to 20,000 new housing units to help essential workers such as teachers, nurses and first responders live closer to the communities that rely on them,” the statement said.
The steep cost of housing in California, which politicians colloquially refer to as “the housing crisis,” has come to cloud nearly all aspects of life across the state. Despite having some of the highest wages in the nation, the state has an escalating homeless problem and the highest poverty rate — with about 1 in 5 households living below the federal poverty line — once the cost of housing is figured in. Three-hour commutes are expanding, and there are stories of police officers sleeping in their cars. Homelessness has made the sight of sidewalk tents commonplace and led to vast and multiplying camps in abandoned lots and under freeways.
Still, the thing that California needs to do most — build lots of housing, in particular, affordable housing accessible to middle- and lower-income households in the service economy — has proved the most difficult. A bill to vastly expand housing production stalled in the state Senate this year over the protests of suburban communities that argued that a vast new building plan would lead to more traffic and ruin their quality of life. At the same time, construction prices have risen so high that building even no-frills subsidized units routinely costs $500,000 and often more in big cities.
Those kinds of numbers can make a mockery of any effort to solve the problem with money. Public officials and economists are blunt that Facebook’s package will take a decade or longer to have any material effect on a housing crunch that has been a generation in the making and heavily exacerbated by the local technology boom. In the latest annual counts of the homeless population, Los Angeles and several Bay Area cities saw their homeless populations increase significantly; Oakland’s grew close to 50% in just two years.
Exactly how much tech companies are responsible, and how much money they could or should put toward housing, is a matter of continuous debate. Last year, a contentious ballot initiative to fund homeless services in San Francisco split the local tech community. Marc Benioff, chief executive of Salesforce, became the measure’s biggest backer, leading to a public feud with Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter and payments company Square, who was against it.
It is an oft-repeated talking point, in both San Francisco proper and the smaller cities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park that make up Silicon Valley, that tech companies should help build housing for their swelling ranks of employees. Gov. Gavin Newsom has called on technology companies to contribute more and asked big corporations to use their substantial cash hoards to aid state housing efforts through instruments like low-interest loans.
Facebook’s announcement Tuesday was made jointly with Newsom, who in the news release said: “State government cannot solve housing affordability alone, we need others to join Facebook in stepping up — progress requires partnership with the private sector and philanthropy to change the status quo and address the cost crisis our state is facing.”