Facebook Dips Its Toe Into Funding Housing

Mark Zuckerberg speaking and holding a microphone.
Robert Scoble via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Last summer, I got a call from a reporter from Fast Company. He said there were rumors that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wanted to use some of the resources of his social enterprise/philanthropy, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to take on the question of affordable housing in Silicon Valley. The reporter was looking for a primer on affordable housing and ideas of what sorts of things Zuckerberg might do.

In the article that ran, he included some of my suggestions, including having Facebook wade into the fight to reform the mortgage interest deduction. However, he seemed much more taken with the idea of encouraging Facebook to design apps that would work out the problem of encouraging more density and more housing construction without creating miserable places to live or massive displacement.

I will definitely agree: that problem needs to be worked, and some new angles on it are needed. If Facebook wants to throw some brain power at it, I think that would be a good thing. And I suppose given that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was supposed to solve social problems with a “start-up mentality,” it isn’t surprising that this is what struck Fast Company as appropriate.

Not a Tech Problem

However, a “start up” mentality has limits. Some problems are fundamentally more about market failures, lack of resources, and lack of political will, rather than lack of a clever, high-tech point of view. That’s why one of our pie-in-the-sky suggestions was that Facebook should hire a high-powered lobbyist who usually lobbies for defense companies or the sugar industry, and put them on affordable housing’s side. This idea didn’t make it into the Fast Company article, alas. (It is also no substitute for organized people power. But it did seem more likely than Zuckerberg trying to wade into the complex and long-term waters of supporting grassroots organizing.)

Whether Zuckerberg was influenced by our sage advice or not, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has in fact started to venture into the realm of supporting affordable housing, albeit in neither an overtly political nor particularly tech-style way.

As announced yesterday in this video from the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), Facebook has put up $18 million to seed a $75 million housing development fund for residents of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park. LISC and Facebook’s local partner, Housing Trust Silicon Valley, will oversee its use.

On the face of it, this is not unlike a number of other impact investments in affordable housing. Nothing extremely “innovative” here yet. But as I said, sometimes what a problem needs is not a newfangled solution, but existing solutions on a larger scale (and a much larger scale than this, to be fair).

I’d still like to see someone take on our troubled zoning issues and give housing advocates a deep-pocketed professional on their side on Capitol Hill. But sometimes if what you want to do is have there be more affordable housing, what you’ve got to do is build some. If Facebook wants to put some of its money in that pot, the community development field knows what to do with it. And hopefully other tech firms will follow suit.

(P.S. No amount of housing philanthropy or any other kind of good works excuses this kind of behavior.)

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