Silicon Valley is famous for outlandish job perks.
Amenities like foosball tables, nap pods, and office pubs are ostensibly meant to lure tech professionals in a cutthroat hiring market. But the more cynical explanation is that they blur the lines between work and home to numb employees to the long hours demanded of them.
Perhaps, then, it only makes sense that the logical endpoint of this new evolution in office culture is the ultimate perk: a home.
In a region with a severe lack of affordable housing, companies like Facebook and Google have begun to roll out plans that would effectively turn them into their employees’ landlords.
Facebook is planning an ambitious new apartment complex at an extension of its Menlo Park corporate headquarters, complete with a grocery store, a hotel, and various retail outlets. Google has bought hundreds of a new form of modular homes viewed as a potential breakthrough in housing development gridlock.
The moves are seen as welcome steps towards correcting a steep regional housing imbalance that these tech companies helped create. But they also raise questions about the limits of corporate powerand about a tech industry already seen as insular retreating further into a self-imposed bubble.
All jobbed up with nowhere to live
Sleepy South Bay suburbs like Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Menlo Parkthe land of famous garages at the true heart of Silicon Valleyhave seen office buildings multiply like pox as commercial developers rush to accommodate the needs of the world’s richest companies.
But the number of new homes, which are less lucrative to build or tax, hasn’t come close to matching that growth. A not-in-my-backyard lobby of entrenched homeowner groups and local politicians that would rather kill job growth than greenlight new apartments hasn’t helped matters.
The result is thousands of newcomers pouring in to fill jobs at shiny new offices while straining roads and transit, transforming neighborhoods, and driving up rents on scarce housing. Cost of living in most of these areas has surpassed even that of San Francisco.
Obviously, no one’s really happy with this situation. In San Francisco, longtime residents tend to blame the problem on tech workers, who are seen as an unwelcome force of gentrification in many neighborhoods.
It’s not uncommon to see phrases like “die techie scum” scrawled or plastered in bathrooms of the city’s endangered dive bars.
But the housing crunch has gotten so extreme that even Silicon Valley’s rank-and-file can have a tough time paying their bills. A family of four that earns $105,000 per year is now considered “low-income” by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development’s latest standards for San Francisco and the South Bay suburbs.
The Guardian reported that a group of Facebook engineers raised the affordability issue directly with Mark Zuckerberg last year, hoping the CEO might subsidize some of their rent bills. After all, the company already serves them three meals a day and offers amenities that span everything from dry cleaning to arcade games.
One former Facebook engineer wrote about how the cost of living drove him to leave a six-figure job at what he calls the “Disneyland for tech folk” and relocate to Arizona.
“I realized I would have to make downgrades in my familys quality of living in order to just continue onward,” the ex-employee wrote. “Sometimes your dream job can’t make up for the cost of living in the Bay Area.”
But Facebook and Google aren’t anywhere near done growing their sprawling workplaces.
Situated across the street from Facebook’s current campus and on the border of a city once known as the “Murder Capital of the U.S.A.,” Facebook’s expansion plans will add a million square feet to its existing property and more than 6,500 new jobsfour times the 1,500 apartments in its planned housing complex.
While Facebook’s commitment to cordoning off 15 percent of those housing units for low-income dwellers is seen as a service to the local community, the extremes of the situation are getting to the point where the company is almost forced to address housing itself at the risk of a much unhappier workforce.
“Our hope is to create a physical space that supports our community and builds on our existing programs,” Facebook’s vp of global facilities and real estate, John Tenanes, said in the announcement of the complex.
The posts also hint at more similar housing community projects to come.
“This is only the beginning,” Tenanes wrote. “Going forward, we plan to continue to work closely with local leaders and community members to ensure Facebooks presence is a benefit to the community. Its one were lucky to call home.”
Many housing advocates are cautiously optimistic about the plans as a step in the right direction, especially given the low-income promise. But there’s also a wary acceptance that the latest wave of growth will likely spill into surrounding communities like the neighboring city of East Palo Alto, one of the last vestiges of low-income housing in the area.
That’s part of the reason former Menlo Park mayor Steve Schmidt opposed a plan that the have the city require Facebook to build more than 3,500 housing units before it’s even allowed to start on its offices.
“Menlo Park and the surrounding communities are experiencing stress from a dramatic imbalance between local employment and the housing available to most segments of the population,” Schmidt wrote. “The Facebook expansion that projects an additional 6,500 employees will aggravate this existing imbalance.”
Meanwhile, a few miles down Highway 101, Google has mapped out three glass behemoths on a new campus next to the crumbling hulk of a NASA hangar and airfield it’s leasing from the government for at least the next 60 years.
The property has been in the works for years, waylaid in part by various regulatory struggles with the city of Mountain View. Its current iteration is topped with a wavy canopy integrated with solar panels in the roofs and skylights.
Somewhere in the mix of this compound will be around 300 low-cost prefab homes that Google is expected to use as temporary accommodations for employees, a person familiar with the situation confirmed.
While modest in function and appearance, modular homes like these, are seen as one possible innovative fix for the housing shortage. The units, which Google bought from an obscure startup called Factory OS, are cheap to build, lean in design, and easy to assemble on site because they snap together like puzzle pieces.
Each of Factory OS’s standardized units is pre-packaged with all the necessary housing accoutrementsplumbing, closets, even a smart home integration systemat a former Bay Area naval shipyard that once installed periscopes on submarines.
Google’s batch of homes will be the homebuilder’s first order outside of the units it’s supplied for its own parent real estate company. Google will pay between $25 and $30 million total, the source said.
These types of units have the potential to serve more than just Google’s needs.Their low construction overhead and easy set-up could incentivize developers to build on land that they wouldn’t otherwise consider worth the investment.
And at the end of the day, the unusual assembly process yields buildings that don’t look much different than any other.
Google declined to comment on its plans.
Between NASA’s Moffett Field, Salesforce’s new skyline-dwarfing tower in San Francisco, and Uber’s purchase of the historic Sears building in downtown Oakland, tech giants now control some of the Bay’s most imposing landmarks.
Google’s whimsical headquarters is conspicuous, littered with rainbow bikes and quirky art, but the company’s also been buying up mass expanses of more non-descript office space along the freeway connecting Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale. Apple is there too. It now owns or leases around 160 football fields worth of office space.
With local political actors gridlocked on new housing and transportation infrastructure, it’s likely these companies will eventually take matters into their own hands. Regulatory battles with local governments have repeatedly shown that municipalities have little actual power to block the world’s richest companies when they put their minds towards a goal.
One dystopian vision for where this future might lead is reminiscent of the so-called “company towns” that industrialists built in the late 19th century. The towns were populated by factory workers and one company owned all the housing and retail. Living conditions were bad, and inequality was entrenched.
But corporations are far from that point. Until then, more housing is welcome.