multifamily housing under construction in san jose, Ca. Sundry Photography/shutterstock

multifamily housing under construction in san jose, Ca. Sundry Photography/shutterstock

When the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative spearheaded the launch of the Partnership for the Bay’s Future early this year, it gave us a good look at how the heavyweight LLC wants to tackle the region’s infamous housing crisis. Its approach weaves together support for advocacy, a considered stance on equity issues, and a strong group of regional funding partners eager to crack the toughest challenge facing California.

But CZI’s efforts are up against a brutal economic reality. Despite plans to raise and invest upward of half a billion dollars into housing over the next five to ten years, the Partnership expects to “preserve and produce” just 8,000 units during that time. Meanwhile, as CZI acknowledges, the region added 500,000 jobs between 2011 and 2015, far exceeding the paltry 65,000 units of housing it created during this same period.

That yawning deficit highlights how difficult it is for even the most well-heeled funders to make a dent in housing shortages. But there is an upside: rising public attention to the issue that’s slowly translating into political will. This year, California Governor Gavin Newsom has made it a priority to extricate the Golden State from its housing woes, and the state legislature appears more inclined to action than in the past.

With the state exerting pressure from above and city-dwellers feeling the pain from below, philanthropy can play a key role by backing a steady drumbeat for change while making sure vulnerable communities don’t get drowned out in the process. Judging from its most recent California housing commitments, CZI appears to understand that.

Funding the “Three P’s”

CZI has organized its recent housing giving around what has become known as the “Three P’s”: production, protection, and preservation. Adopted by political advocates to create a big tent of support for pro-housing measures, the Three P’s are a bid for solidarity amid often-vicious local squabbles over gentrification and displacement. The question is whether the Three P’s amount to a viable framework for policy—or if they’re a political stratagem to paper over unworkable conflicts among entrenched interests.

CZI is betting on the former. Its most recent round of housing funding includes support for research and community organizing to keep tenants housed, coalition-building to preserve access to affordable units, and some interesting investments in housing production. Grants favor the Bay Area, but some grantees work cross the state.

Notably, CZI wants to bring several projects based outside California into the Golden State. One is Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, whose nationwide eviction database also enjoys the backing of Gates, Ford, and JPB. Then there’s JustFix.nyc, a nonprofit that builds apps and other tech solutions to help tenants fight displacement. Its high-profile funders include Robin Hood, OSF, Robert Wood Johnson, and the New York Community Trust. CZI is supporting a bid to bring JustFix.nyc’s services to California. Another interesting investment is in the Idaho-based startup indieDwell, a certified B corp that designs and builds modular housing with an eye toward infill and multi-family dwellings. 

An intersectional approach to equity runs through much of this new funding. CZI groups its housing funding under “Justice and Opportunity,” a program area that also encompasses criminal justice and immigration reform. Quite a few of CZI’s grantees see housing as just one of many interconnected socioeconomic determinants like health, education, and criminal justice. A few relevant examples include the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) Action, the California Coalition for Rural Housing, and the Bay Area Regional Health Inequity Initiative.

Advocacy, broadly defined, is a prominent theme. But CZI is reticent to put all its eggs in one basket and continues to back diverse strategies. One recipient, the California Community Land Trust Network, advocates for the community land trust (CLT) model, which remains relatively rare despite its potential to preserve affordability over the long term. Another, the SF Housing Accelerator Fund, is a public-private vehicle for direct housing investment backed in part by the Hewlett Foundation. 

As Ruby Bolaria-Shifrin, Housing Affordability Manager at CZI, notes in a press release, "The housing challenge in California can only be tackled when multiple solutions are explored simultaneously and collaboratively.”

How Much Is Enough?

In this case, “multiple solutions” means funding places that traditional c3 philanthropy can’t reach, including companies like indieDwell, c4s like ACCE Action, and political advocacy groups like the Three P’s Coalition. An impressive recent set of legislative wins for Three P’s appears to justify the political investment. And with legal barriers to infill development gradually giving way, business models like that of indieDwell sound promising. 

At the same time, while it’s a safe bet that CZI’s decision to pull multiple levers has enhanced its impact, one still gets the sense that it could be doing more in this space. Yes, Mark Zuckerberg gives quite a bit, recently earning a top score on Forbes’ ranking of billionaire generosity. And yes, CZI is doing a good job listening to local needs in the region (its equity-oriented CZI Community Fund also attests to that). Weighed against the sheer immensity of the Zuckerberg fortune, though, CZI’s housing commitments still seem modest.

Aside from tens of millions put forward to seed the Partnership for the Bay’s Future, CZI’s typical housing grants hover in the low six figures. To be fair, those aren’t insignificant investments in the advocacy realm. But the Bay Area isn’t just another city with a housing problem. In many ways, coastal California has become a national symbol for digital-age inequality in the United States. Headway against the region’s housing crisis might very well spur headway in other places.

There are a couple of other reasons for pause. CZI just announced that David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s rockstar campaign manager in 2008, will step back from his role as the organization’s head of policy and advocacy. And Mark Zuckerberg recently expressed a rather dim view of the Bay Area’s prospects, indicating that Facebook intends to expand elsewhere. “At this point, we’re growing primarily outside of the Bay Area. Obviously, we’re still going to be growing a bit here, but the infrastructure here is really, really tapped,” he said.

Still, all of that may not mean much. In the grand scheme of things, Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan are still new funders testing the waters—CZI, don’t forget, is less than five years old—although at a much grander scale than most. They certainly have the resources to keep rolling out bigger investments in housing equity. With the political acceptability of housing reform on the rise in the Golden State, now seems like a great time to do so.

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