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Anti-displacement advocates seek $2 billion from tech giants to fund housing

Thursday, November 21, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

A new consortium of community activists has challenged Austin’s biggest technology employers to step forward with $2 billion to fund programs and nonprofits committed to fighting displacement of working-class residents.

The Development Without Displacement Coalition held its first press conference Wednesday morning at City Hall, announcing its intent to open dialogue with representatives from Apple, Google, Facebook and other major employers who have drawn thousands of highly paid workers to Austin in recent decades. Those high incomes have driven up area home prices by 40 percent in the past five years, causing widespread gentrification in East Austin and other pockets of the city.

Pointing to the multibillion-dollar gifts that companies like Microsoft and Apple have made to combat affordability issues in Seattle and San Francisco, group members said the time has come for peer companies in Austin to help solve the housing crisis their growth here has caused.

“So many tech companies have moved in and we’re at kind of a critical mass or tipping point because the tech economy influences the way people live,” said Frank Rodriguez, a group leader and former policy aide to Mayor Steve Adler. “High-tech job seekers are delighted, but first-time buyers and renters aren’t feeling the benefits of tech companies, which have mostly been filtered to the wealthy, and they often displace working-class black, white and Latino communities.”

Rodriguez and other group members said any funds that might come from local tech giants should be directed toward existing nonprofit groups and community development corporations that fund new affordable housing or programs for rental assistance, stipends for first-time homebuyers and home repairs.

He said the group calculated the $2 billion figure with data provided by the city’s Innovation Office that found more than 232,000 households were at risk of displacement. That works out to just over $8,600 in assistance per household to shield them from the effects of fast-rising property values.

Group members plan to spend the coming weeks pursuing talks with local leaders in the tech industry, starting with a formal letter “stating the ask” to address the city’s housing crisis. If those companies provide funding toward displacement, it would come alongside $250 million in bond money approved by voters last year to fund affordable housing throughout the city.

Paul O’Brien, CEO of MediaTech Ventures and veteran of the San Francisco tech scene, said companies from other major employment sectors such as biotech and finance need to have a role in the affordability conversation as well since those industries offer similarly high-paying jobs.

O’Brien said tech companies can use their ability to innovate to help find answers for issues such as transportation and income inequality, which feed into the larger housing crunch.

“I challenge us to realize that affordability and housing and access to good jobs is fundamentally a matter of public policy, zoning, infrastructure and mobility, and the way we work as a community to ensure that everyone is elevated,” he said. “The supposition in the press release is that what happened in Seattle and the Bay Area is because of tech, and that tech is at fault. That’s a dangerous notion, and we’ve had high-tech in Austin for decades and the jobs paid well in the 90s the same as they pay well now.”

David King, a former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said the funding is needed to help proven programs that combat displacement. King added that he feels the city’s density bonus programs are unlikely to provide meaningful relief, and that the time has come for the city’s tech sector to acknowledge and address its impact on the housing market.

“High-tech, high-paying jobs are driving the affordability crisis here in Austin, and I’m not blaming high tech for that because we need those jobs and we need those companies to be here, “ he said. “But what we want them to do is help out with these unintended consequences.”

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