Rehousing of Grenfell Tower families in luxury block receives mixed response

While some residents welcome the families to Kensington Row others are less positive with concerns over future property prices

Two miles south of the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower is a large complex of sleek new apartments that some of those displaced by last weeks inferno will soon be able to call home.

Kensington Rows manicured lawns, clipped trees and burbling fountains are a haven from the rumbling traffic of two busy London thoroughfares, and its spacious, air-conditioned foyers a relief from Junes oppressive heatwave.

Four unfinished blocks house the 68 flats purchased by the Corporation of London for families who lost their homes in Grenfell Tower. Workmen had been instructed not to talk to the media, but one said there was now a rush to complete the building work. Its a brilliant idea, he said of the resettlement plan.

Among those exercising dogs and small children, the views were more mixed. Its so unfair, said Maria, who was reading the news in the Evening Standard with two neighbours.

She bought her flat two years ago for a sum she was unwilling to disclose. We paid a lot of money to live here, and we worked hard for it. Now these people are going to come along, and they wont even be paying the service charge.

Nick, who pays 2,500 a month rent for a one-bedroom flat in the complex, also expressed doubts about the plan. Who are the real tenants of Grenfell Tower? he asked. It seems as though a lot of flats there were sublet. Now the people whose names are on the tenancies will get rehoused here, and then theyll rent the flats out on the private market. And the people who were actually living unofficially in the tower at the time of the fire wont get rehoused.

Im very sad that people have lost their homes, but there are a lot of people here who have bought flats and will now see the values drop. It will degrade things. And it opens up a can of worms in the housing market.

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Facebook plans to invest $20m in affordable housing projects

The tech company, long criticized displacing low-income residents in Silicon Valley, will partner with advocacy groups to amid massive campus expansion

Facebook has agreed to invest $20m in affordable housing initiatives after facing intense criticism for failing to help low-income residents in Silicon Valley where the technology boom has exacerbated displacement and gentrification.

The corporation, which is pushing forward with a massive campus expansion in northern California, announced on Friday a partnership with community organizations aimed at funding affordable housing construction and assisting tenants facing eviction.

Housing activists who have long been critical of Facebook and its role in accelerating income inequality in the region said the investment marked an unprecedented collaboration between Silicon Valley corporations and advocacy groups and that the project could push neighboring tech companies to better address local poverty.

Im hoping this fund will be the thing that starts to move the rest of the region, said Tameeka Bennett, executive director of Youth United for Community Action (Yuca), a non-profit in east Palo Alto that helped negotiate the new agreement.

The housing shortage has reached crisis levels in Silicon Valley, which is also home to Google, Apple and many other wealthy technology firms. Rapid job creation combined with a lack of new housing has created an estimated shortfall of 22,000 homes, with the region building only 26% of the housing needed for low-income people, according to non-profit group Public Advocates.

That means only the wealthy can afford to live near their Silicon Valley jobs, forcing an estimated 70,000 low-income workers to commute more than 50 miles to work.

Facebook, headquartered in Menlo Park, has contributed to the problem in direct and indirect ways. The company sparked backlash after it began offering generous bonuses to employees if they live near campus, which advocates say has hastened gentrification. Local real estate managers have evicted low-income tenants en masse, explicitly marketing units to Facebook employees.

The funding announced this week is not simply a philanthropic donation from Facebook, which is valued at $350bn. The corporation is legally required to fund certain community benefits as part of its ongoing expansion project, and activists have spent months pressuring the company to make substantial investments.

Facebook plans to add 126,000 sq ft to its campus and bring 6,500 new employees to the area, increasing the Menlo Park workforce by 20%. Development laws mandated that the corporation contribute $6.3m to below-market-rate housing.

Still, non-profit leaders said the housing fund could have a significant impact and noted that Facebook executives have relied heavily on the input of local advocates with the kind of intensive collaboration advocates rarely see from corporations.

The community groups that have the expertise really were equal players, said Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, which had raised formal objections to Facebooks expansion proposal.

I hope having one large prominent Silicon Valley company leading the way on this will be a wake-up call for all the other global corporations that the Bay Area is hosting and the need for them to work locally, he added, rather than just thinking of themselves as global corporations that exist online.

In addition to investing $18.5m toward the creation and preservation of affordable housing, the company has offered $500,000 toward legal and rental assistance to tenants threatened with displacement.

A Facebook spokesman told the Guardian that the company doesnt have projections on the number of housing units the partnership could fund, but noted that the $20m is an initial contribution and said the company hopes to attract additional public, private and philanthropic entities to contribute to the fund.

Kyra Brown, Yucas social justice program director, said it was critical that Facebook do a better job diversifying its workforce and hire locally in east Palo Alto, a historically black city. African American employees make up only 3% of the corporations senior leadership in the US.

Silicon Valley is known as this very innovative place when it comes to addressing everyday issues, she said, but my hope is that we also take that same innovation and apply it to social issues.

Brown, who grew up in east Palo Alto, said the announcement was an important first step in the tech sector helping to address inequities in the communities theyve entered.

Im glad that Facebook is thinking about the legacy it wants to leave particularly when it comes to communities of color, she said.

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Facebook’s neighbors are losing their homes. What’s being done about it?

As the company prepares to bring thousands of new workers to its Menlo Park campus, advocates say it must do more to help lower-income local residents

The first time Tameeka Bennett had to drive two hours in traffic to get to her job in East Palo Alto, she broke down in tears in her car. It was October 2014, and Bennett, 29, had never imagined she would have to move away from the Silicon Valley city where she grew up, which is one of the least affluent communities in the region.

But her family had lost their home to foreclosure, and they couldnt find an affordable house to buy in East Palo Alto. So they were forced to move to Oakland, which is 40 miles north and a nightmarish commute away from Bennetts job as executive director of Youth United for Community Action, an East Palo Alto not-for-profit group that fights displacement.

While Bennett recognizes that there are multiple factors driving the regions housing crisis, its hard for her to ignore the most obvious force less than three miles north of her organization: the Facebook headquarters.

This week, Bennett and other northern California advocates are pressuring Facebook to make substantial investments in affordable housing as the powerful social networking company pushes forward with a major expansion that experts say will drive up housing prices and exacerbate income inequality in the center of the booming tech economy.

The brewing dispute over Facebooks expansion in Menlo Park which is adjacent to East Palo Alto and not far from the headquarters of Apple and Google has exposed what many critics of the industry see as a glaring contradiction in the tech sector. That is, these hugely profitable companies cast themselves as do-gooder innovators creating transformative technology, but in their own backyard, theyre contributing to a crisis that has grave consequences for disadvantaged communities and theyre doing little to disrupt the poverty plaguing their neighbors.

Menlo Park officials and residents debated Facebooks growth plans during a lengthy city council meeting that dragged on past midnight on Tuesday evening. The public discussion came one day after reports that founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are exploring ways that their new philanthropic organization could help alleviate the high cost of housing in the region.

Facebook which set up its huge campus in Menlo Park in 2011 has proposed two new office buildings that would add roughly 126,000 sq ft to its campus, along with a 200-room hotel. The project is expected to bring more than 6,500 new employees to Facebook and the hotel, which would increase the entire Menlo Park workforce by more than 20%.

As part of the expansion, Facebook is required to contribute $6.3m to below-market-rate housing.

The company further agreed to provide $350,000 for a study of housing conditions; $1.5m for a housing innovation fund for various initiatives; $1m for for a preservation fund to buy and protect units housing at-risk populations; and $2.15m for reduced rents in 22 units of workforce housing, with priority given to teachers.

Tameeka Bennett moved to Oakland after her family was unable to find an affordable house in East Palo Alto. Photograph: Courtesy of Youth United for Community Action

But critics say those are relatively inconsequential benefits given the size of the project and scale and urgency of the housing crisis and considering that Facebook is now worth about $350bn, making it the sixth-most valuable company in the US.

Research has repeatedly suggested that Silicon Valley tech firms have worsened inequality, and data shows the area has lost affordable units at alarming rates. Recently, there have been numerous mass evictions and threats of widespread displacement near tech corporations.

With a surge in tech jobs at Facebook, the project will probably attract tens of thousands of additional workers in lower-paying jobs that support the industry, said Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates, a not-for-profit group that has, along with the ACLU, raised formal objections to Facebooks project.

It is those workers and other poorer residents who will suffer the most from a jump in the regional housing demand, he said, pointing out that roughly 70,000 low-income workers in Silicon Valley already commute more than 50 miles to their jobs, which also has environmental consequences.

Its fundamentally not fair to ask low-wage workers in Silicon Valley to be bearing the personal costs for global corporate production, he said. Facebook could have a substantial role in correcting those deficiencies.

In East Palo Alto, officials have also gathered compelling evidence suggesting that Facebooks presence has had tangible consequences for low-income renters.

From 2011 to 2015, the average asking rent for a one-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto increased by 89%, according to records.

One property owner acquired roughly 40% of the citys entire rental housing stock in December 2011 after Facebook moved to Menlo Park and the new landlord subsequently issued a significant number of eviction notices, officials have noted in city records.

That real estate company has specifically advertised new housing to Facebook workers, writing on its website: Now is the time to consider affordable East Palo Alto apartments before the rest of the Facebook and Google employees do!

In a recent letter criticizing Facebooks project, East Palo Altos mayor, Donna Rutherford, included that quote and pointed to research showing that in 67% of all recent house sales and rental units in East Palo Alto, the marketing materials have mentioned Facebook.

Its not that were against Facebook, but we want to make sure that when the expansion happens, it benefits not only a group of people, but the wider community, said Carlos Martinez, East Palo Alto city manager.

Caprice Powell, 24, who grew up in East Palo Alto, said she is moving to Atlanta, Georgia, this summer in part because she cant afford to rent here any more.

Facebook is coming in and bringing along all these rich folks Theyre able to afford our housing, because its nothing to them.

Powell said her sister and mother had both been priced out of East Palo Alto and that she was temporarily living in a small room in her godfathers house one of five people crammed into a two-bedroom. After she relocates to Georgia, she hopes to eventually return to East Palo Alto, but shes not confident it will be financially feasible.

It feels like East Palo Alto is not our home any more, she said.

Bennett, who said she knew at least five local families who had been pushed out, also pointed out that Facebook had offered its employees generous bonuses to live closer to campus, which has accelerated gentrification.

You are directly displacing families, she said, adding that Facebook should look beyond its impact on Menlo Park and commit to funding housing in surrounding cities.

One resident at the council hearing also pointed out that black employees account for only 3% of Facebooks senior leadership in the US, but others praised the company for bringing jobs and supporting local not-for-profit groups.

Facebook declined an interview request, but said in a statement: We understand that our growth affects the everyday lives of our neighbors, and we want to be respectful and thoughtful about how we approach our expansion. The future of Menlo Park is extremely important to us, which is why we work with city and community leaders to tackle local priorities, including transportation, housing and the environment.

The statement did not mention East Palo Alto.

At the council meeting, John Tenanes, Facebooks vice-president of global facilities and real estate, did not address criticisms over housing, but said: You have my commitment that Facebook will continue to be very active above and beyond what weve negotiated.

A spokesman for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative declined to comment on the rumors about potential housing initiatives, saying in a statement: We are in the process of examining a number of potential issue areas for future work.

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