With support of Amazon, new fund lets everyday tech workers invest in affordable housing

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Bellwether Housing CEO Susan Boyd announces a new affordable housing fund at the Amazon Spheres. (Bellwether Housing Photo)

Skyrocketing housing prices, crippling traffic, and widening income inequality are making U.S. cities difficult places for everyday Americans to live. And in cities with booming tech economies, the industry driving that change often shoulders the blame.

The phenomenon is especially acute in Seattle, home to the two richest people in the world and the tech companies that earned them that accolade. Despite the soaring success of companies like Microsoft and Amazon — currently the world’s two most valuable companies — Seattle has struggled to find solutions to its homelessness crisis and many longtime residents have been priced out.

But over the past few months, the tech industry has been stepping up to fund solutions to the city’s affordable housing crunch. The latest initiative was unveiled Tuesday by the advocacy group Tech 4 Housing and Bellwether Housing, Seattle’s largest nonprofit housing provider.

At an event on Amazon’s Seattle campus, the two organizations launched the Building Opportunity Fund, an effort to raise $4.5 million in investments to build 750 affordable homes in the Seattle area. The fund is unique because it allows everyday people to invest, rather than being restricted to accredited investors.

Tech and nonprofit workers gather at the Amazon Spheres for the launch of Bellwether Housing’s Building Opportunity Fund. (Bellwether Housing Photo)

“Regular people with a little bit of money to invest will be able to see their money at work, helping to build affordable homes in their own community, while earning a modest return on their investment,” Tech 4 Housing Director Ethan Goodman said in an email. “We hope that tech workers will be a large part of this campaign, and that investing can serve as one path towards deeper engagement on housing issues.”

Tech 4 Housing approached Bellwether with the idea for this crowdfunded initiative about a year and a half ago after the SEC relaxed rules governing non-accredited investors. Investors in the Building Opportunity Fund will receive annual returns on 15-year loans. Amazon will match employee investments in the Building Opportunity Fund dollar-for-dollar until September of this year.

Microsoft commits $500M to address affordable housing and homelessness in the Seattle region

It’s the latest in a series of announcements that show the tech industry taking a more active role in housing issues.

Last week, Plymouth Housing, another local nonprofit, announced it raised $48.8 million to build five new affordable housing buildings over the next four years. Microsoft and Amazon each donated $5 million to the effort, as did former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie.

For Microsoft’s part, it was the first grant award in a broader $500 million affordable housing and homelessness fund the company announced earlier this year.

The trend isn’t just playing out in Seattle. The west coast’s other technopolis, San Francisco, has its own housing champions emerging from the tech industry.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff threw his weight — and millions of dollars — behind Proposition C, a measure approved by voters that would tax large San Francisco companies and use the funds to combat homelessness. The measure is currently stalled in a lawsuit. Benioff also donated $30 million of his own money to launch a research initiative into the root causes of homelessness.

Related: Can Big Tech solve the housing crisis? The politics of private companies taking on public issues

Just this week, Google said it plans to commit $1 billion to increase the Bay Area housing supply in the form of company-owned land, loans, and other types of financing.

But there isn’t always agreement in the tech industry over how to solve the housing challenges plaguing the cities in which they operate. In San Francisco, Benioff went head-to-head with Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey over Proposition C. Dorsey said he supported an alternative plan proposed by San Francisco’s mayor while Benioff claimed his foe “just doesn’t want to give.”

In Seattle, Amazon fought a tax that would have raised money from the city’s top-grossing companies to fund affordable housing and homeless services. The heated battle ended when the Seattle City Council passed, then repealed, the controversial tax.

There’s also a debate over how reliant cities should become on private philanthropy for an issue as critical as housing. Donations are ultimately at the whims of donors and they are not subject to the same oversight as long-term public revenue generating mechanisms. If a company went under or a recession struck, there’s no guarantee that private funding would still be available, for example.

Despite these concerns, Bellwether Housing CEO Susan Boyd sees the new fund as a big opportunity to build bridges between tech and the broader community.

“This fund is not just about raising money, it’s about engaging an entire community directly and powerfully in the creation of a more affordable and inclusive region,” she said in a statement. “We just opened the fund yesterday and we are halfway to our goal so we know this is resonating.”

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