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TriplePundit Sponsored Series

Tech Titans: Community Citizens?

3p Weekend: The Silicon Valley You Won't See on Postcards

By Mary Mazzoni

Thanks to the influx of large tech companies, the San Francisco Bay Area has ballooned in both wealth and population over the past two decades. But the picture isn't always as pretty as those postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge.

As companies continue to pressure Bay Area communities to build new office parks, they often fail to lobby for housing and transportation options to go along with them, placing a strain on local infrastructure. Additionally, more highly-paid residents means more shops, restaurants and trendy coffee bars — all staffed by employees who are quickly being priced out of the area.

This perfect storm creates a heap of problems for Bay Area residents — as well as significant opportunities for government and the private sector to collaborate on solutions. In a recent series, TriplePundit took a closer look at living, working and commuting in the Bay Area, how tech companies impact residents, and what these firms can do to ensure the long-term sustainability of the region.

Getting around the Bay Area in the age of Tech Titans

The region's population has grown by 200,000 since 2010, and another 2 million are expected by 2040. But its transport systems – highways, buses, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain – are already reaching peak capacity. As highways slow to a standstill during rush hour, more public transit is needed to pick up the slack. But the fact that public transportation systems are operated by an astounding 27 different transit agencies across the nine counties that make up the Bay Area makes a growth plan difficult to devise, experts told TriplePundit.

“When you have 27 separate transit agencies, it is impossible to get coherent transportation planning that will operate on a complete Bay Area basis,” Gerry Tierney, an urban mobility expert at Perkins + Will’s San Francisco office, told 3p's Nithin Coca. “We have a 19th-century political structure trying to address 21st-century problems.”

Tech employees who choose city life over their far-flung office parks can hitch a ride to work on company-provided shuttles (commonly dubbed 'Google buses,' although other big tech firms like Facebook, Apple and Yahoo use them, too). Communities argued that this wasn't enough to ease the burden on highways and public transit, and the fact that tech shuttles utilize public bus stops did little to ease the tension -- spawning protests and lawsuits across the region, 3p correspondent Nayelli Gonzalez reported.

Fortunately, after years of outcry, big tech companies are beginning to rise to the occasion. Facebook has said it will put in $1 million to fund a Caltrain extension to the Dumbarton bridge, which would put a station closer to its headquarters in Menlo Park. Google is working with Mountain View to build more housing, including low-income housing, around its Mountain View campus. And LinkedIn has said it will implement a plan to reduce single-occupancy vehicles at its headquarters, pushing more of its employees to either take transit or carpool to work. But, as 3p correspondent Nithin Coca pointed out, this is only the beginning of what will likely be a long road ahead.

As rent prices skyrocket, can residents keep up?

Housing prices are hitting peak insanity across the Bay Area. The average one-bedroom apartment will set a renter back a whopping $2,965. "To maintain an apartment at this rate, an individual working minimum wage in San Francisco at $12.25 per hour would need to work over 60 hours per week just to cover the monthly rent — not including having enough cash left over for utilities, food, transportation or any other basic needs," wrote 3p correspondent Sherrell Dorsey.

And, as 3p Editor-in-Chief Jen Boynton pointed out in a recent op/ed: Even high-income earners like lawyers, engineers and nonprofit directors can basically forget about owning a home unless they want to go work for a big tech firm: The median home value right now in Mountain View -- a safe-but-boring suburb -- is $1.4 million.

This leaves many residents doubling or tripling up with other families in small apartments to make ends meet. For some, even this is not an option, as evident by the rise in chronic homelessness. Local agencies are finally beginning to move on increasing affordable housing, but they are often met with resistance. “There’s not enough political will to build,” Sonya Trauss, founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, told 3p's Jan Lee. “Suburbs have the idea that housing doesn’t pay.”

If you ask local advocates, tech companies -- which are the main draw for hundreds of thousands moving into the Bay Area -- could do much more to ensure there's enough housing to go around. “They should engage positively with local government and advocates to find shared solutions, rather than just finding ways to work around local ordinances or throwing tons of money at ballot measures they don’t like,” Gloria Bruce, executive director for the East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), which advocates for improved housing options in places like Oakland, told Lee.

Can the gig economy bring relief?

The burgeoning ‘gig economy,’ comprised of companies such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and Handy, connects people with 'gigs' -- or on-demand, flexible, freelance employment -- that can help them earn extra cash or, in many cases, provide the sole means of employment for someone looking for work. The gig economy isn't unique to the Bay Area, but as a tech startup hub home to millions who are just scraping by, gig employment is obviously a highly popular option.

But gig economy employers have come under scrutiny for not offering benefits or forming concrete policies that ensure worker security, and the jury is still out on whether the concept is good for workers. In the end, it's unlikely that the gig economy will provide the silver bullet the Bay Area needs to keep low- to middle-income residents afloat. As former gig economy darling HomeJoy shut its doors and analysts fear many of its peers may be overvalued, the sector itself could very well be on life support. It's time to start looking at alternatives.

Taking on the macro issues

The Bay Area has its fair share of local issues clamoring for attention. But the same macro issues at play in the rest of the world -- such as climate change and racial inequality -- are also coming to the fore in the City by the Bay.

Some of the region's wealthiest neighborhoods are threatened with property loss due to sea-level rise, leaving many to wonder what role local business has to play. Within their own walls, large tech firms in the Bay Area must acknowledge a glaring lack of workplace diversity and devise solutions for how to move forward.

Although both macro and micro issues present significant problems for tech companies looking to operate responsibly, a sustainable way forward is possible, as 3p correspondent Nayelli Gonzalez summarized in the final post in our series, What it Means to be a Responsible Tech Company.

Did you miss any of the stories in our Tech Titans series? You can read them all here

Image credit: Flickr/Patrick Nouhailler

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni