February 7, 2017; San Mateo Daily Journal

The affordability issue in Silicon Valley touches renters at all socioeconomic levels. Last summer, CityLab told the story of Kate Vershov Downing, a lawyer who volunteered on the planning and transportation commission of Palo Alto, California. Ms. Vershov Downing resigned from her volunteer position at the city when she and her husband moved to Santa Cruz some 40 miles away because “she was tired…of paying $6,200 a month to share a rented four-bedroom house with another couple.”

This week, the Daily Journal, which serves San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County in California, reports on grants by the for-profit LLC Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to the activist attorneys of the Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) and the more progressive academics at University of California Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Each has been profiled in an NPQ story over the last six months: CLSEPA’s efforts on behalf of displaced families were discussed in connection with efforts to pass citizen initiated rent control laws in the Bay Area in the fall of 2016 and the Terner Center was profiled in an NPQ story on renter tax credits.

CLSEPA is a nonprofit legal services corporation that provides direct legal services to low-income residents in the Bay Area. But, it also has a strong advocacy and empowerment practice. According to the article, CLSEPA will use the $3.1 million over three years to hire five new attorneys. A portion of the grant will also go to Faith In Action Bay Area and Youth United for Community Action. As Samantha Weigel of the Daily Journal puts it:

CLSEPA and its community partners have been some of San Mateo County’s strongest proponents for battling the consequences of the rising cost of housing. Their multi-pronged approach combines legal representation and community advocacy work. It’s also included controversial efforts to enact tenant protections—which included two citizens’ initiatives last November when San Mateo and Burlingame voters considered rent control and just cause eviction measures.

While the work of the Terner Center work is academic, the Center is no less activist in its approach. Headed by Carole Galante, a former commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, the Center specializes in “bold strategies to house families from all walks of life in vibrant, sustainable and affordable homes and communities.”

This week’s grant announcement was the Facebook founder’s way of supporting an advocacy component to Silicon Valley’s affordable housing crisis. Just two months ago, Facebook announced a $20M commitment to a new community coalition (including CLSEPA) that would support housing development. “The vast majority of the company’s investment will be used to establish a Catalyst Housing Fund for ‘innovative and scalable’ affordable housing.”

Conflict around the issues created by the rapid economic growth of the area seems pervasive in Palo Alto, and many locals are not happy about Facebook’s “good neighbor” policy towards lower-income renters. Reader comments in the Daily Journal story reflect the push and pull of investors, homeowners, renters, and inclusion advocates. Homeowners seem to argue against density and traffic. Investors demand fewer controls on their property rights. Tenants want relief from high rents or long commutes to work because they can’t rent locally. And inclusion advocates want to preserve some socioeconomic diversity.

Without specifically endorsing the advocacy efforts of CLSEPA and the progressive vision of the Terner Center, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is clearly taking sides in favor of expanding housing opportunities and promoting a mixed-income community.—Spencer Wells