Microsoft treads cautiously as it plans to deploy $500M affordable housing fund in Seattle region

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From left to right: Seattle Tech 4 Housing Founder Ethan Goodman, Microsoft Philanthropies Senior Officer Amy Liu, and Bellwether Housing Director Amy Besunder discuss affordable housing at an event in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Microsoft made a big splash in January with the surprise announcement of a $500 million commitment to increase the supply of affordable housing in its hometown, the largest philanthropic gift in the company’s history.

The plan is to donate $25 million in grants to address the Seattle region’s homelessness crisis and invest the remaining $475 million in low- and middle-income housing.

But figuring out how exactly to spend those dollars has been a challenge for Microsoft over the past five months. That’s according to Amy Liu, a senior officer for Microsoft Philanthropies. Liu discussed the project Tuesday during an event at Seattle’s Populuxe Brewing hosted by the advocacy group Tech 4 Housing.

“The learning curve for us has not flattened,” she said. “I keep waiting for it to flatten. We are not affordable housing experts but we also wanted to move forward with something and be part of coming up with some solutions.”

Liu was joined by Tech 4 Housing Director Ethan Goodman and Bellwether Housing Director Amy Besunder to discuss what the tech industry can do to address the Seattle region’s housing crisis.

(GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Liu said Microsoft doesn’t expect to loan the funds directly to real estate developers or become a landlord itself.

“We really have not figured out how we’re going to deploy the funds,” she said. “We’re looking at projects and we want flexibility, to be honest.”

In the months leading up to Microsoft’s announcement, the company partnered with Seattle online real estate giant Zillow to study the affordable housing crisis in their hometown. They found that since 2011, jobs in the Seattle region have grown 21 percent while growth in housing construction has lagged behind at 13 percent. Over the same time period, median home prices in the Puget Sound region increased 96 percent while the median household income only rose 34 percent, researchers found.

Since announcing the fund, Microsoft has continued to study the issue, talking to experts in the field and looking at models for sparking affordable housing construction in other cities.

The goal is “to understand the problem better,” Liu said. “That’s in our DNA.”

It isn’t clear when the fund will begin to take shape, but Liu said Microsoft hopes to make an announcement in the next two months. In the meantime, Tech 4 Housing is trying to mobilize tech workers in the region to put pressure on their employers to be part of the solution to the housing crunch.

“There’s a concern in society about the accountability of big tech companies and whom are they accountable to in this day and age. One really strong answer is they are very accountable to their employees,” said Goodman. “It is still a very tough market for talent and the employees at tech companies have a huge amount of leverage over their employers if they act together and if they’re organized.”

A livestream of the event is available here.

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