Creator:Michael Marcovici [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

October 22, 2019; San Francisco Chronicle

On Tuesday, Facebook announced it would make a $1 billion investment in affordable housing. The money is to be spent over a decade, and much of it will be used in the Bay Area where Facebook is headquartered. The $650 million to be spent in California will be spent in partnership with Governor Gavin Newsom.

“State government cannot solve housing affordability alone,” Newsom said. “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.”

Now, not to be a spoilsport, but, as with the $100 million Dalio Philanthropies grant to Connecticut’s public schools, we are left asking how much these deals, which are sure to draw down a good deal of public money and attention, will reflect and advance the priorities of the company rather than those of a popular base.

We are particularly interested in the carve-out, though small, for the plebes on hand to serve those who lead and work at the corporation. Maybe it is way too cynical, but $25 million to build housing for teachers and essential workers on public land for school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties smacks of a feudal mentality that it is difficult to square with democracy.

The rest of the money is to be spent as follows:

  • $250 million for the partnership with the State of California for mixed-income housing on excess, state-owned land.
  • $150 million for production of affordable housing in the Bay Area through the Bay’s Future Fund, the affordable housing investment fund of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future.
  • $225 million in Menlo Park land for affordable housing.
  • $350 million in reserve funds for additional commitments across the country.

Facebook is not the only tech giant in the housing game in that area; in June, Google announced it would repurpose at least $750 million of its land for residential housing during the next 10 years, complementing that with a $250 million investment fund to provide incentives for developers to build at least 5,000 affordable housing units across the market. Google also committed to make $50 million in grants available to nonprofits working on homelessness and displacement.

Of course, these commitments come not only as Congress mulls whether Facebook is too big for anyone’s good, as 47 states investigate the company for antitrust issues, and as  the prices of homes in San Francisco have climbed to become the most expensive in the country, with no end in sight. In that context, a billion will make a relatively modest dent, say some housing advocates. A recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that across the Bay Area, single-family home prices have climbed by six percent each year since the Great Recession and “historically lower priced, minority areas like East Oakland, East Palo Alto, and San Francisco’s Bayview have seen some of the biggest price spikes in recent years.”

This donation is billed as a strike against income inequality, a ridiculous appropriation of language under the circumstances.—Ruth McCambridge