Everyone knows that billions of dollars have been flowing into startups focused on helping landlords manage properties, helping lenders manage loans and helping buyers/sellers/owners/investors/agents/iBuyers manage property sales. None of these dollars and none of these startups, however, are helping manage or even addressing affordability, a central problem in real estate.
Matt Hoffman, vice president for innovation at the national housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, surveyed efforts in what venture capitalists call “proptech” and said, “None of that investment, nor the solutions that companies are offering will fundamentally change the dynamic of the housing market in ways that increase housing affordability.”
Claire Brenner, a managing partner with the venture capital firm, The Urban Innovation Fund, believes that affordability is a policy problem, not a tech problem. “Nimbyism, zoning laws, land use restrictions and tax policies have made (affordability) worse. Tech can’t solve those policies.”
Startups attracting the most attention for potentially improving affordability are the ones trying to revive decades-old dreams of prefab construction. Blokable is building stackable units. Factory OS is producing housing in a factory. Kanterra is a tech-driven off-site construction company.
Housing experts such as Carol Galante, the faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley, said, “…how we build has a significant role in getting to affordability.” As the national shortfall of affordable units has hit 7.2M, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and now costs as much as $500,000/unit to build low-income housing in the country’s most expensive markets, construction cost savings could help developers stretch available subsidies and could also change the math in markets where developers say it’s not profitable to build middle-class housing.
Others think that how we consume, finance and regulate housing will put a dent into affordability. Startups could enable models between renting and ownership. Startups could squeeze new housing supplies out of housing that already exist. Startups could help homeowners tap into their home equity to pay for constructing Auxiliary Housing Units (AUDs) on their property so as to add lower-cost rental stock that traditional lenders often don’t finance. And startups could use software instead of development to create housing by offering tenant matching so their combined incomes together would be enough to qualify for loans.
MetaProp, A New York-based tech accelerator and venture capital fund focused on real estate, is investigating ideas for cohabitation/co-living, ways to make community land trusts more efficient, new platforms that help renters make monthly payments and ways to help people afford down payments, according to Leila Collins, the fund’s senior associate.
Collins doesn’t think tech investment alone will solve real estate’s affordability crisis but she does think an infusion of venture capital could help broaden our thinking about access to and the creation of affordable housing options.
All of this “tech startup thinking” comes at a time when tech giants such as Microsoft, Salesforce and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have pledged major new housing investments. None of these giants, however, is proposing spending money on tech fixes to address the affordability problem. All have announced investment funds to help affordable housing developers and all are pushing for local policies that would make it easier to expand affordable housing.
Like most potential solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, perhaps housing affordability requires multiple perspectives from and collaborations with tech wizards, policy wonks and foundation coalitions. And again, like most solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, perhaps housing affordability is not an either or problem nor an either or solution.