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Tech Takes on Housing

December 5, 2019 | By

Jane Broom, Senior Director of Microsoft Philanthropies, said the switch flipped for her when she learned that the chiefs of police in the Washington cities of Bellevue and Redmond had to move out of the Seattle area because they couldn’t afford to live there.

That “switch” was Broom’s realization that the lack of affordable housing in Microsoft’s own backyard was an issue not only for low-income families, but also for a large portion of working people whom cities rely on to thrive economically and socially, such as police officers, nurses, and teachers.

Broom recounted the story at InnovateHousing, a gathering of Seattle-area innovators and disrupters – presented by the Washington Center for Real Estate Research and Fannie Mae – looking to address the affordable housing supply crisis with new approaches. Broom and Christine Gregoire, CEO of Challenge Seattle — a group representing 15 Seattle-based CEOs, including Microsoft — were the keynote speakers on an InnovateHousing panel called The Future of Tech Companies as Anchor Institutions. Both Broom and Gregoire were equal parts optimistic and realistic about the housing challenges of the Seattle region — challenges faced by many fast-growing communities nationwide. But they both agreed that tech companies and major employers have a role to play in meeting those challenges.

Gregoire said that while the boom in Washington brought exciting industry growth and high salaries to the area, affordable housing for middle-class residents became scarce, and the crisis for low-income residents worsened. Although the growth of the tech sector didn’t cause the nationwide housing shortage, many believe technology and tech companies — including Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, who have all committed funds and resources to help — will play a key role in alleviating the supply issues.

While the pain and insecurity of working families unable to afford housing is a moral imperative, the resulting cost to society and the broader economy has become a pressing business concern that Broom and Gregoire are trying to channel into action by major employers. Gregoire lamented, “When teachers can’t stay after school to help kids because they have to commute, you know you’ve got a problem. When first responders can’t get there, it’s an issue. Our quality of life, the vibrancy of our cities, our very fabric of community, the middle class — [they’re all] at risk. While I think that’s true in most places in the U.S., it has hit us hard and fast, and so we’ve got to tackle it hard and fast.”

Gregoire spearheaded the 2019 Challenge Seattle report on middle-income affordable housing. The business group works to identify pressing issues and recommend a set of public- and private-sector actions — with a pledge by company members to lend their voice, data, expertise, and resources. Broom worked closely with Challenge Seattle in crafting Microsoft’s $500 million investment in affordable housing, with $225 million focused on middle-income housing.

Gregoire and Broom warn that housing problems are multifaceted, and help from the private sector alone won’t solve the issue. “If you don’t change public policy, if you don’t change the rules and the regulations, if you don’t change the amount of time it takes to get a permit, if you don’t make the permit something that is absolutely predictable to the developer, you cannot succeed,” Gregoire explained.

How can other tech companies and major institutions help in their own communities? Gregoire suggests that they can offer support, provide capital, assist with education, and offer a new voice — a voice that hasn’t been heard before.

“I think there are a lot of people who have been screaming from the mountaintops about this issue for a very long time, but no one’s listening or hearing,” Broom said. “Sometimes you need a different voice to say the same story, or maybe echo it. It’s this notion of people from different parts of the community coming together to share a concern and maybe stating it from a slightly different viewpoint.”

When asked what advice they would offer other companies who want to help but feel constrained by the inevitable political and reputational risks of stepping into the affordable housing issue, Broom replied, “I’ll start with the premise that I think there’s bigger risk if they don’t. Without action, we can’t sustain quality of life. We can’t sustain a healthy community.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the panelists and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Fannie Mae.

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