Tech execs back California bill that aims to build more housing near transit

1236 Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff talks with guest speaker Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer at the annual trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group/MCT)

SAN FRANCISCO: Bigger, taller apartment buildings surrounding your neighbourhood BART station? More than 100 California tech leaders are enthusiastically saying yes, please.

Tech titans including the CEOs of Salesforce, Twitter, Lyft, Yelp and Mozilla on Jan 24 signed a letter applauding SB 827, the controversial bill Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, proposed earlier this month. The bill would usurp cities’ building rules by requiring them to allow denser housing developments within a half-mile of transit hubs such as BART, Caltrain and Muni stations, and within a quarter-mile of bus lines.

On Jan 24, 130 tech executives and venture capital partners said they “solidly support” the plan in a letter addressed to Wiener.

“The lack of homebuilding in California imperils our ability to hire employees and grow our companies,” the leaders wrote. “We recognise that the housing shortage leads to displacement, crushing rent burdens, long commutes, and environmental harm, and we want to be part of the solution.”

Local employees who do stay face growing challenges. Many endure “punishingly long commutes”, or spend half their income on rent, the leaders wrote. And Caltrain and BART don’t necessarily help them shorten their commutes. SB 827 would change that, by opening the door for more people to live near near transit, according to the letter.

“California’s housing shortage is a major threat to our economy,” Wiener wrote in an emailed statement. “I’m glad these business leaders get it and are taking a bold stand for more housing.”

But not everyone thinks the senator’s proposal is a good idea. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin describes it as an “extreme reactive approach” to the housing crisis that will lead to more tear-downs and more evictions. State law exempts newer buildings from rent control.

“Why should we be incentivising owners to find ways to force out tenants so they can jack up rents?” he asked.

Jan 24’s letter is a product of the YIMBY movement – a network of organisers who say “Yes in my backyard” to new housing development. The activists recently went around gathering signatures from tech executives in support of SB 827.

“I’m very excited to see employers stepping up to this,” said Laura Foote Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action.

As tech companies pump money into the region and housing prices continue to rise, there’s been a growing call for companies to take part in housing solutions. Google is heeding the call by backing the development of nearly 10,000 homes in North Bayshore, a plan approved by the Mountain View City Council last month. And Google is working on a 20,000-worker transit-oriented campus at San Jose’s Diridon Station, which also may include Google housing. Meanwhile, Facebook is planning to build 1,500 homes on its expanded Willow Campus in Menlo Park.

Neither Facebook nor Google signed Jan 24’s letter, but Facebook spokesman Jamil Walker said the company supports SB 827. A representative from Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.