Get To Work

Eight months ago, I resigned from my job as a commercial real estate broker to reach for something more meaningful. Today, I can say without a doubt that decision has been the second best decision of my life (first was eloping with Gabriella).

Let’s rewind. My parents are New York transplants and moved to San Francisco in the 60’s. They came to chase opportunity and the unstructured life in the West. They made ends meet by living in shared housing and before long, my dad Norm took up his residency at Stanford University. He described going to his first meeting at Stanford in a pickup truck with my mom and my sister at a few days old, with not much else to their names. They finally settled in Palo Alto in the early 70’s and raised my sister, my brother, and me.

Wave 1, Sister, Mom & Becca — Early Days in Palo Alto

They fostered a deep sense of (hippie) community spirit in our family. We had people from all walks of life orbiting our home: Francois Groff the French engineer, Ade Mabogunje the Nigerian designer, Olaf Gotestam the Norwegian student, Rob & Stacy Woolsey, the Alaskan couple. These were real-life people whose character taught us much about the world. Ade helped me on a science fair project, Olaf taught us about the engine of an American muscle car, Rob & Stacy taught us how to fish for halibut and Francois, well he just loved to rollerblade.

But they provided more than lessons. The cost of child-care for three children was almost out of reach for a family of two working parents. Having people live in our cottage rent-free in exchange for child-care was a creative solution for everyone involved. As an adult, it now blows my mind that such a simple financial arrangement could create a lifetime of relationships with people from all over the world. I look back fondly on those friendships — friends that became part of our family.

This story highlights a wonderful fabric of the San Francisco Bay Area. Almost everyone here is from somewhere else, and we enrich each other through personal interaction. The diversity and drive to excel is what separates this place from the rest of the world.

As I grew up, my parents taught me the value of social justice, and like most kids, I didn’t listen…at least at first. I went to UC Davis, learned about business and optimized for a career I thought I wanted, and what I thought people expected of me. I brokered for 10 years and worked with some awesome companies and amazing people.

Then, I pushed the reset button to figure out what I really wanted to do. At first, I was like Tom Hanks on a deserted island. I released a film and grew a beard. But before long, the aspiration to make a positive impact and drive change became clear. I knew what I had to work on.

This March, I incorporated a new company — Starcity. Our mission is to create a future where great cities are accessible to EVERYONE. . .the teacher, the artist, the single mother, the police officer, firefighters, baristas, restaurant servers, students, car service drivers, and entrepreneurs.

If a new generation of Ades, Francois, Olafs, Rob & Stacys move here, it’s virtually impossible for them to find comfortable housing without sheer luck. You can’t bank on luck to secure a basic human need, and many of the people that made the Bay Area what it is today can no longer afford to live here. Our community is facing an existential crisis of massive proportions.

I am also excited to announce that the Starcity family is growing. Jesse Suarez, Mo Sakrani, and Josh Lehman have all come on board to Starcity as founders. They are deeply committed, authentic, hardworking entrepreneurs who have experience in building software, physical spaces, and most importantly, communities. In addition, they’ve felt the pain points around housing that many in San Francisco face today. It’s what inspires them to give back by improving the processes around securing housing.

Team planning…

Creating a meaningful amount of high-density communal housing is a big, complicated challenge. Building involves navigating physical, capital, political, and emotional pressures, which can often be in conflict. Because of this, not many people are working on this problem and the lack of supply is crushing what used to make this the city that captured the hearts of all who travelled through it.

There are headlines everywhere about how our great city of San Francisco falls well short of what I just described above. When I first moved to the city in ’06 as a recent college grad looking for work, my rent was ~$1,000/month. Today, that same place would be 3–4x more. Smart people, with tons of passion, and few resources, have been working on this problem for years. And despite making gradual progress, even the most ardent affordable housing advocates remain frustrated about the slow progress. There are piles of studies, legislation, and committee reports which amount to only incremental fixes. At this pace, we will continue looking at this problem for years.

…so, do we sit around and complain, or do we Get To Work?

Our solution will help address this monumental problem. Starcity will tackle the housing gap with a new approach. We’re creating a housing solution aided by friction-reducing technology. We will also spend resources to support the “just build housing political paradigm.” We will use Silicon Valley’s and San Francisco’s gusto to usher in a fresh new attitude about how and where we live, work and socialize. It will be hard and challenging, and we’re going to take it all on.

We promise to ask people what they want instead of building what we think they want. We’ve already held focus groups and conducted surveys with hundreds of people, asking them their opinion. How can we fix this problem? What do you want to see in an urban home? What would a great community-centric brand feel like? The results were eye opening and we’ll share more soon. Even more energizing are the conversations we had. People see that we care and are working hard to help.

In another departure from the traditional housing development approach, we will use the venture-financing model because this is a new real estate product with software that will make applying and obtaining housing simpler. Software that will make communities richer. Traditional real estate lenders are intrigued, but can’t get behind new ideas until they have been successfully field tested and validated. Venture-funding is the way the best new ideas get off the ground; why not for a tough, intractable problem like housing?

Today, we are excited to announce that we wrapped up our first round of funding lead by Trip Adler, founder of Scribd and long-time friend. We also want to welcome Alex Smith, Cory Barnard, Cutter Macleod, Dan Livingston, Helenka & David Livingston, Norman & Genevieve Dishotsky, Pete Koomen, Rashid Sigg, Rebecca Dishotsky & Kirk Everett, Sam Blond, Sean Dunne, Travis Bryant, and Will Peets as investors. We appreciate all of your support.

We have another fantastic investor we can’t announce quite yet, so stay tuned.

We will soon be bringing our first site on line, a small prototype version of this new community concept.

We plan to have our first Starcity community open this year, welcoming new members to our family. We’ll learn a lot from the first community, listen to our customers and improve on the inaugural design. As more and more of these communities come on line, we hope to start making a material impact on affordability in San Francisco and have tons of happy customers who get to enjoy our great city again.

Before any kind of formal launch we have a lot of work to do. In the meantime, I want to thank you for reading this, supporting, and sending positive vibes. Questions? Thoughts? Send me a message anytime: jon@joinstarcity.com. We especially like to hear from people who are having a difficult time navigating the housing market in San Francisco. We’re here to help.