How Big Tech Has Contributed to Homelessness

homelessness and big tech

Credit Image: © Barbara Munker/DPA via ZUMA Press

Tech Companies in Silicon Valley Continue to Get Richer While the Housing Crisis Gets Worse. How Can We Fix This?

We all know that The San Francisco Bay Area contains some of the most expensive zip codes in the country. We can thank its thriving technology sector that turned people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg into some of the richest people in the world.

The average rent in San Francisco is more than 2.5 times the typical national rent. People who would be considered incredibly wealthy in other places in the country still struggle with Silicon Valley’s housing prices. In fact, there are some co-living spaces where even a spot on a bunk bed might cost near $2,000.

The tech industry has had an impact on housing in other cities, too.

Data from real estate company Redfin shows that housing prices in cities like Denver, Seattle and Austin increase year-over-year by .49 percent with every 1 percent increase in technology workers.

The technology sector isn’t the sole reason for the housing crisis in cities across the United States. However, it has made some people much richer while increasing existing wealth disparities. San Francisco experienced the greatest increase in wealth inequality from 2007-2012 of all U.S. cities. Meanwhile, affordable housing development hasn’t moved fast enough.

A recent Invisible People article shows how wealth inequality has an impact on homelessness. In a city like San Francisco, where the wealth gap is so extreme, you can see this disparity in action. According to a point-in-time count, there were 8,035 homeless people in San Francisco in 2019. Due to COVID-19-related job losses and subsequent evictions, this number will likely continue to grow, in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, well-paid tech workers are going to have the chance to move out of the expensive Bay Area housing market, thanks to their jobs going virtual due to the pandemic. Employees may feel free to take Silicon Valley – including the housing crisis – with them, leaving behind the high rents and pandemic-friendly density of San Francisco. This has already led to more problems.

Tech Workers Leaving the City

Data from Zillow shows there was a mass exodus from San Francisco this summer. Housing inventory rose almost 100 percent year-over-year. This might seem like a good thing: people leaving the city means the rents will be lower, right?

Well, maybe. But San Francisco is still the most expensive city in the country. An article in The Guardian said that “even amid an exodus from the city, San Francisco’s housing crisis may be getting worse,” pointing out that the kind of wealth disparity that already existed in the city won’t be fixed by a relatively minor drop in rental prices.

“Rents in the region are still too expensive for most residents, especially those who have lost income this year and were already clinging to the edge of a financial cliff,” the article said. “At the same time, tech workers and other high earners who easily adapted to work-from-home policies early in the pandemic while retaining big salaries have been able to lower their rental rates or cash in on new opportunities to purchase homes with extremely low interest rates.”

So, not only is the tech worker flight from the Bay Area not helpful to the region’s increasing homeless population, but it could also be causing trouble in other places.

A recent article in the New York Times looks at the impact Californians migrating across the country could have on housing markets in places like Boise, Idaho, where home prices rose 20 percent in 2020.

The “Go Back to California” sentiment is not new to states like Idaho, Texas, Oregon and Colorado, where Californians are notoriously settling, supposedly crowding the highways and raising housing prices. But now, as low-wage workers across the country face threats of unemployment and eviction, people may be especially hostile toward wealthy newcomers.

The New York Times article said that since housing costs are relative, “anyone leaving Los Angeles or San Francisco will find almost any other city to have a bountiful selection of homes that seem unbelievably large and cheap. But for those tethered to the local economy, the influx of wealthier outsiders pushes housing costs further out of reach.”

However, as easy as it is to blame “the Californians,” that takes the heat off of local governments to implement policies that will help their residents experiencing homelessness or on the verge of becoming homeless. It’s on them to create affordable housing so everyone will have a place to live, even if it’s not as profitable for them.

Opportunities for Change

Many cities have thought about housing homeless people in now-empty apartments or hotels. This includes California where roughly 22,300 people have been placed in hotels as part of Project Roomkey. But Silicon Valley has another potential tool to help house homeless people: lots of empty offices.

An article in Wired illustrates how dystopian the wealth disparity is playing out in Silicon Valley during the pandemic. “Hundreds of thousands have filed unemployment claims while their Big Tech neighbors are minting millions of dollars a day,” the article reads, citing Zoom as an example of a Silicon Valley company that’s grown exponentially while people down the street don’t even have internet access.

But what if we used the now-virtual workforce as an opportunity to house people? The Wired article read that “3.6 million square feet of office space has been listed for sublease in San Francisco,” and more big companies are considering going totally virtual, eliminating the need for huge offices.

“That’s where unused office space could, in theory, make space for new housing units. But only if cities radically rethink their zoning laws,” the article read.

Homelessness is a crisis that our capitalistic society created. As we stand in the midst of a housing crisis, millions of square feet of office space remains vacant. Allowing this travesty to continue only encourages the myth that economic status is related to one’s self-worth.

We must get rid of these fake barriers and allow everyone to have their basic needs met!

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for so many across the country. This includes homeless people who have been further pushed to the margins during this crisis. We must rethink how our society works, sheltering people in the process. Contact your legislators today and demand they take action.

Taylor Griggs

Taylor Griggs


Taylor Griggs is a freelance journalist based in Eugene, Oregon. She is especially passionate about social justice, mental health and environmental issues.

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