How tech hubs contributed to America’s housing crisis — and what they can do about it

Homes in San Francisco. (Flickr Photo / Chris Chabot)

America’s housing crisis is a nationwide problem, but it’s especially acute in San Francisco and Seattle, home to the country’s largest technology industries.

The “terrible twins,” as New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty describes them, represent a perfect storm of rapid job growth, an influx of wealth, and rampant single-family zoning that makes it difficult to densify housing. In an interview with GeekWire this week, Dougherty explained how the two tech hubs have become centers of opportunity for some while squeezing out others.

“The economy changed in some big ways that make inequality much more structural,” he said. “And we’ve not built nearly enough housing where prosperity is happening.”

Dougherty has been covering economics and real estate for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on-and-off for a decade. He joined us for this episode of the GeekWire podcast to discuss his new book “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.”

Listen to the podcast above, or subscribe to GeekWire in your favorite podcast app, and read highlights from our conversation below.

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty, author of “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.”

On solving the housing crisis: “Did I discover some silver bullet? No. But I think that there are places that are taking positive steps. Minneapolis became the first major city in America to effectively end single-family zoning. That does not mean you can build a high rise building next to a single-family home. It means you can put basically a granny flat … in the backyard … that’s a very positive step. There are places like San Francisco which, despite its many problems, has passed a fair amount of money for affordable housing. There are a lot of different positive steps we can take, but if we sit around waiting for this panacea, that’s how we get ourselves into the problem in the first place.”

On the tech industry’s impact: “[Tech] companies grow at a rate that we’ve never contemplated, which probably has to do with just how software multiplies … if you could grow cities like you could grow tech companies, which is not physically possible, it wouldn’t be a problem … it’s almost like the multiplying world of bits running into the very slow, linear world of city building. Obviously the rate of growth has made it very difficult because you can’t build cities at that rate.”

On taxing Big Tech to fund housing: “Whether or not a company like Amazon would choose to have an office in a different part of this region, I can’t predict … but I think that Seattle does more for Amazon. I think that these places do more to create these companies than these companies do to create these places. I solidly believe that. Look at what happened with this HQ2 thing, all these rinky-dink towns are prostrating themselves for this ridiculous competition and then [Amazon goes] to New York and Washington D.C., which you could have predicted.”

On increasing housing density near tech hubs: “These companies are the industrial powerhouses of our time. Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and also the smaller versions of them that are in the same space, and other knowledge companies. These are the companies that people who want to do better, to make more money, to become better educated, to have the opportunity to better themselves through economic growth, that’s where they have that opportunity. That is the main escalator in our society at this moment. The same way that GM and Ford were in a different time. It seems obscene to me — and honestly terribly unfair to the rest of America … that’s a lot of people, unless they’re pretty wealthy or willing to endure a lot, can’t even live near those industrial powerhouses of our time that all of America played some minuscule role in building.”

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