The Bay Area is known for two things: tech and high housing prices. Many of us are here because of the former and in spite of the latter. Housing costs prevent new talent from coming to the region and are a drain on resources that could otherwise go to building new companies. Tech, as an industry, has to help reform regional housing policy. And we have to do it fast.
Tech, the Bay Area, and Why We Can’t Walk Away
Bay Area tech is a textbook example of an industry cluster. TL;DR, labor, capital, and entrepreneurs keep coming to the region because of all the labor, capital and entrepreneurs that are already here — think network effects. It’s a self reinforcing cycle. But it has one countervailing trend: the high cost of housing.
Prices in the housing market are born of supply and demand. And a lot of demand does come from tech. But while demand has increased, supply has not kept pace. This is clearly reflected in rising rents and skyrocketing home values. I don’t know much about ferret regulations, but this clip from Silicon Valley is spot on when it comes to housing:
Tech in a difficult position. The Bay is still the industry’s center of the universe. But it’s becoming ridiculously expensive to retain top talent and secure commercial space. It’s as if tech — along with everyone else — has to pay an extra tax to landholders just for the privilege of being here. And the more successful the industry becomes, the more the industry will have to pay.
The immediate problem is a housing shortage. And the immediate solution is to build more housing. But there’s a roadblock to pursuing that solution. Namely, our political process.
From San Francisco to Cupertino, residents resist urbanization. Many times this involves homeowners blocking anything beyond the single family detached housing their neighborhoods were originally zoned for. They accomplish this by voting in elections, protesting in planning meetings, and suing in the courts.
This pushes development into poorer areas that represent political paths of least resistance. Some housing gets built, but never as much as we need. Prices keep going up. And residents facing displacement begin to view tech as an invading force. We need to act. And we need to act differently than we have so far.
Google running bus routes, Facebook building housing, and Social+Capital getting into commercial real estate are examples of duct tape. They’re marginal improvements that solve company-specific issues, but they’re neither long-term nor systemic fixes for our industry’s housing problems.
We’re accruing the institutional equivalent of technical debt. And things will only get harder the longer we wait to sort out regional governance. If you’re in engineering, imagine a codebase in need of refactoring. If you’re on Ops, think of it as the worst org chart problem you’ve ever seen. But whether we want to call it re-org, refactor, or reform, we have to engage politically.
I like tech because we build alternatives. At out highest-minded, we’re all about criticism through creation. But taking that approach to regional governance means giving up and moving to Austin. Or maybe that permanent burner camp if we’re really serious about starting from scratch.
The Bay Area is like its own startup. And anyone who has been at a great company during rough times knows you don’t walk away at the first sign of trouble. If the product is good and the team is willing, you work at it until you get it right. For tech to get it right in the Bay, we have to participate. That means voting.
For the record, I have serious philosophical issues with voting. And I’m fully aware of the statistically insignificant impact my voice has in presidential elections. But at the municipal level, a few extra voices can matter. And there are more than a few of us tech workers in the cities that need to urbanize the most.
Sold on voting? Live in San Francisco? Great. Election day is on November 3rd and this one is gonna be a doozy:
- Register online here (deadline is October 19th)
- Find your polling location here
- Learn about the propositions and candidates here
- Read pro-growth voting recommendations here, here, or here
- Vote on November 3rd
Four clicks and a short Lyft ride is as frictionless as I can make American Democracy. But if there are any “Growth Hackers” out there that want to create a better new user funnel, by all means, show me up.
Interested in doing more than voting? Want to speak at a city council meeting or help out with a marketing campaign? There are organizations that would love to have your help.
The San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF) is a regional advocacy group working to counterbalance the forces of NIMBYism all over the Bay. GrowSF and the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition (SFHAC) are similar organizations working specifically in San Francisco. And if you’re on the Peninsula, check out Imagine Menlo, Palo Alto Forward, Sunnyvale Cool, or Balanced Mountain View depending on where you want to get involved.
If civic engagement sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. The process is an uphill battle by design. Short term, there are benefits to brute forcing our way through a broken process. Long term, however, we need to change the process itself. That means investing our time, skills, and money into political advocacy, either through an existing group or one that the industry creates on its own.
Next to Loma Prieta II, high housing costs are the single biggest threat Bay Area tech faces today. If we do nothing, we die a slow collective death. It’s already too expensive for many to stay in the region. When it becomes too expensive to move here in the first place, we’ll really be in trouble. Fewer new people means fewer new ideas and new ideas are nothing short of the lifeblood that flows through our industry’s veins. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. Among all the problems we’d like to solve and all the things we’d like to build, solving the housing crisis and building functional governance has to come first. Otherwise, we’ll be facing eviction just like everyone else.
What’s the Matter with San Francisco: the short version of where we are and how we got here. Skim it on your mobile while you wait 10 minutes in line at Blue Bottle. And maybe follow Gabriel Metcalf on Twitter while you’re at it.
How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists: the long version of where we are and how we got here. Read it after you’ve waited 30 minutes in line at Sightglass. And definitely follow Kim Mai-Cutler (or as I like to call her, “the God-sent voice of reason”) on Twitter.
California’s High Housing Costs: Causes and Consequences: the really long version of where we are and how we got here. Written by the State’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). Not sure if they have a twitter account.