The argument in this post is that tech companies should reserve a small fraction of the money they spend on housing philanthropy and put it toward ballot initiatives to lift California’s restrictions on apartment construction (i.e. zoning reform). Shortly after Silicon Valley’s tech titans pledged billions to solve the Bay Area’s notoriously high housing costs, critics and policymakers began to note that philanthropy alone was unlikely to make much of a dent in the problem; Representative Scott Weiner tweeted that without deregulating the State’s extremely restrictive construction rules, even billions couldn’t pay enough units to match the growing population.
Though politically controversial, Weiner has proposed some of the most celebrated bills among pro-development advocates in order to dramatically loosen restrictions on density and local approval requirements. Unfortunately, Weiner’s proposal have lost again and again in the state legislature, as his critics and their allies successfully block his efforts, despite the fact that some polling indicates that the majority of Californians support aggressive reform.
In many parts of California, super-active local groups and their representatives often outweigh the majority opinion. For instance, though San Francisco elected one of the most aggressive zoning reform advocates for Mayor, London Breed, the city legislature, which represents the various neighborhoods, have continuously blocked her efforts to enact changes. As I observed in a town hall that was overwhelmingly dominated by homeowners fiercely opposing Weiner’s policies, parochial activism does not represent voters at large.
The same pattern is observed at the State level, where the Governor, Gavin Newsom, has gotten little traction among state reps towards his goal of building +3 million new units. In other words, California has a weirdly anti-democratic set up when it comes to resolving the housing crisis, where incumbent local groups can override the majority of those who would wish to move to an area in which they could vote.
Fortunately, the State has a remedy for when legislatures cannot make progress: direct democracy through ballot initiative. Ballot initiatives are normally tricky, since gathering enough signatures can cost a few million just to qualify for a vote and then millions more for a campaign. So, naturally, many groups don’t have the resources.
But, tech companies have already pledged billions for more housing and have, in the past, tech leaders have supported Weiner’s proposals. If tech companies took just a fraction of the money they’ve already pledged to the housing issue and put it toward state and city ballots, California has a real shot of passing necessary reforms.
Now, this begs the question as to why tech companies haven’t already done this. The short answer is, I believe, fear. Companies are already reeling nationwide from the political backlash; additionally, locals can cause their own trouble, such as staging headline-grabbing protests in front of buses, which rattle employees as they’re lining up to commute to work. Supporting ballots would invoke the ire of local activists. As a result, tech companies, which, well, want to focus mostly on making tech, don’t want to deliberately embroil themselves in something so controversial
For better or worse, however, I think tech companies are naive to think that they can avoid controversy; either way, tech companies will end up paying for the problem: avoiding protests from anti-development groups now means that they have to dedicate billions for affordable housing and also in higher pay for local employees; and, they’ll still likely be blamed when their well-paid employees displace locals competing for the small stock of available units.
So, instead, I think tech companies should take a bold stand and fund ballot initiatives to tackle the housing crisis head on. Maybe, with some public pressure, they will.