Can Google Solve the Bay Area’s Housing Crisis?

The tech giant aims to realize an arduous, decades-long proposal to develop nearly 15,000 housing units across Silicon Valley as the region grapples with dire homelessness and record-low affordable housing.

Image courtesy of Sitelab Urban Studio

The Bay Area is facing a severe housing shortage, especially in San Francisco, where strict zoning regulations, an influx of affluent Silicon Valley tech workers, and insufficient housing production has caused rents to spike citywide, exacerbating a dire homelessness crisis. Securing approvals to build housing is normally an uphill battle, but Google is making strides toward creating thousands of new units in one of the country’s tightest markets. Partnering with development firm Lendlease, the tech juggernaut aims to develop nearly 15,000 units of affordable (defined in the Bay Area as costing no more than 30 percent of one’s income) and market-rate housing over the next 15 years across Silicon Valley as it readies ambitious plans to expand its footprint. 

If approved, the development will transform how the area around Google’s headquarters will look and feel. Most housing nearby is car-oriented sprawl, but the master plan, called North Bayshore and designed by SITELAB Urban Studio, calls for mid-rise prefab apartments in bustling neighborhoods anchored by walkable shopping districts and acres of parklands. Google’s vision for Mountain View is complemented by a similar development in downtown San Jose, which involves 4,500 housing units and 7.3 million square feet of commercial space, including an expansion of its own offices. Claire Johnston of Lendlease, who’s overseeing the partnership with Google, has described both projects as “a series of villages.”

Image courtesy of Sitelab Urban Studio

Those familiar with Google’s recent forays into urban development may recall the disastrous dissolution of Quayside, a smart city along the Toronto waterfront envisioned by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google parent company Alphabet. Locals raised concerns about the project’s privacy implications and painted a grim picture of a tech giant galvanizing economic development for the benefit of Silicon Valley. Heated public debate cast shadows over Quayside’s feasibility until Sidewalk Labs nixed the project entirely in 2020. Toronto recently approved a new proposal that eschews smart city thinking, prioritizing sustainable living and affordable housing instead of ubiquitous tech and automized perks. 

Will Google make the same mistakes in Mountain View? According to Johnston, all parties are listening closely to community feedback and tweaking the proposal as they ascertain local needs. “No community likes an imposition, and nobody likes being told what to do or how to do things,” she tells Fast Company. “The role of a responsible developer who cares about longevity in a community is to come in and understand the place, understand what exists, understand the people.” For example, locals weren’t thrilled about the intention to remove 2,500 towering redwoods from Google’s tech park as it prepares to open up sight lines, so the company pledged to plant trees in Santa Clara County to ease the blow. As real estate prices nearby rose 25 percent after the announcement of the redevelopment in San Jose, Google worked with the community to devise anti-displacement and job readiness programs.

There’s also the reality that building 15,000 housing units is a drop in the bucket of a housing-starved region populated by three million people and afflicted with skyrocketing rents. But that number is dwindling as the region is weathering a major pandemic-era brain drain, with tech workers no longer bound to their employers’ Bay Area offices fleeing California for cheaper states with lower taxes. A pervasive sense of gloom, stoked by quality of life issues thanks to increasing distrust in local politicians and law enforcement, is only compounding the issue. According to a recent poll by the San Francisco Chronicle, one-third of locals said they were likely to leave the Bay Area in the next three years. (Even more shocking, 45 percent reported being robbed in the past five years.) 

Image courtesy of Sitelab Urban Studio

No matter—Google is doubling down on bringing workers back to the office, a decision that has polarized its staff. The company’s ambitious scheme of re-situating its own offices within walkable, town-like hubs places high stakes on the future of the Bay Area. It also establishes a precedent for Google’s competitors—namely Apple and Meta—to spring into action and start confronting an affordable housing crisis their industry helped exacerbate. Tech giants are notorious for building insular corporate campuses completely walled off from the outside, but Google’s vision mirrors that of a “resilient neighborhood” more aligned with the Bay Area’s long-term needs. 

“We all know this area is critically undersupplied with housing, and housing of all types,” Johnston continues. “What we’re seeing is people want to live in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, but they’ve got supply constraints. I don’t think this will be a full revisionist, we need to start over. It’ll be an augmentation of what’s already there.” Google’s efforts alone won’t solve the region’s deep-rooted problem of affordable housing—especially considering the project’s inflated 30-year timeline—but it’s a start. The housing crisis will only worsen unless the city makes efforts to cut the red tape that keeps blocking new developments. 

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