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Zuckerberg Philanthropy May Target Housing

The philanthropic organization started by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan is exploring ways to help alleviate the Bay Area’s most vexing problem: the high cost of housing.

Representatives from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC have met with several housing experts affiliated with local governments, real estate groups and academia in recent weeks to gather insights on the issue, three people who work on housing policy issues in the Bay Area said. The interest is early, as the organization is just seven months old. People in the talks described the Chan Zuckerberg’s interest as serious, but explorative and non-specific.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is in the “process of examining a number of potential issue areas for future work, both here in the Bay Area and nationally,” according to spokesperson Brent Colburn.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was formed last year to funnel the couple’s nearly $50 billion stake in Facebook into various causes over the couple’s lifetime. It has focused on education so far, and will make venture capital bets, advocate for policy shifts and fund charities and nonprofits. Last month it invested Andela Inc., a New York-based startup that trains software developers in Nigeria and Kenya.

The interest in housing affordability dovetails with the organization’s goal, as outlined on its website, to build “stronger communities.” Caitlyn Fox, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chief of staff, told TechCrunch in December it is “willing to embrace risk and invest in things that may take 10, 20, 50 years to show really concrete results.”

Few prominent tech executives have made housing a big philanthropic cause, despite an acute housing shortage in the Bay Area. Tech companies have been blamed for skyrocketing housing costs, prompting recent calls from city supervisors for tax hikes on tech companies and restrictions on shuttle buses taking employees from the city to tech campuses elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Eighteen months ago, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said in a citywide address that he would seek donations for a fund to speed up the construction of affordable housing. That fund still hasn’t been announced, but most of the money has been raised from bank foundations, not tech companies, one city official with knowledge of the fund said.

But there is growing interest from companies in urban issues. Last month, startup incubator Y Combinator announced it would study how to build a city from the ground up — a hugely ambitious goal that Google’s Sidewalk Labs has also explored.

Facebook announced Friday it would commit millions of dollars to various affordable housing initiatives around Menlo Park, about 30 miles south of San Francisco where its headquarters is located. The commitments, including money to buy housing near its campus to ease displacement of low-income residents, are tied to city approval of the next phase of Facebook’s office development.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative theoretically has plenty of options if it decides to invest in housing. It could invest in technology underpinning more cost-effective construction methods, pay for academic research into the subject, or fund nonprofits and city coffers for housing construction. Some options could be polarizing, like advocating for policy changes such as streamlined housing approvals in California, as several tech executives called for earlier this month. Funding new technology to build housing could also draw ire from labor groups.

Across the country, housing affordability “hasn’t attracted much philanthropic attention because ‘either the ‘market rate’ developers were making money and taking care of production or it was perceived to be the government’s responsibility to provide funding or direct housing for the lower-income population,” Cynthia Parker, CEO of Bridge Housing Corp., one of the country’s largest nonprofit builders, told The Information.

That’s starting to change in the Bay Area because of the “severity of the crisis” and because housing nonprofits now focus on health, job training and education in addition to providing shelter for low-income residents, she added.

There are also several policy causes the group could tackle. Academic research also has increasingly tied economic mobility to high-quality neighborhoods, particularly Harvard University professors who found people had significant income gains when they could use a housing voucher to move into low-poverty areas. The Obama administration has recently argued that local zoning rules that restrict construction of new rental housing has reduced the buying power of middle-class people.

Housing affordability “hasn’t attracted much philanthropic attention because ‘either the ‘market rate’ developers were making money and taking care of production or it was perceived to be the government’s responsibility.