How Tech Companies Are Solving the Housing Crisis

Could 3-D printed homes and a progressive new governor be the answer?

Words by BRADLEY SPEWAK
Illustration by MIKYUNG LEE

 

On his first day on the job, governor Gavin Newsom likened The Golden State to the bombed-out ramparts of Western Europe after World War II, announcing the Marshall Plan for affordable housing. In case you haven’t seen the tent cities, seven-figure prices for two-bed bungalows, and rents that now rival Manhattan, we are in the midst of a housing crisis.

Fewer Californians own their homes today than at any time since the 1940s — and it’s getting worse. Construction rates of new homes run at just 80,000 annually, 100,000 short of demand. California now has the dubious honor of having one of the highest poverty rates in the nation and accounts for nearly a quarter of America’s homeless, but just 12 percent of the population.

But the technology industry is riding to the rescue. Forge New in San Francisco and Sunconomy of Houston recently teamed up to unveil a 3-D house printing system that can churn out a three-bed, two-bath, multistory home in a matter of weeks and for as little as $100 per square foot. For comparison, homes being rebuilt after the wildfires in Sonoma wine country are getting done for $350 per square foot or more, with timelines of up to a year.

“In November alone there were 19,000 structures that were destroyed [in the wildfires]. And what do we do? We turn around and we build it the same exact way that we built before. We want to change that,” says Gregory Takeshita, chief executive of Forge New. The technology, dubbed We Print Houses, is a mobile system that crafts a home, inkjet-style, with a geopolymer cement that dries in the open air. The idea is that the “printed” homes will “last for centuries, not decades,” Takeshita says, because they are made of solid cement versus wood, impermeable to water, resistant to fire and able to withstand an 8.0 earthquake.

Takeshita is not alone. Airbnb this year will roll out test units from Backyard, a project of its futures lab, Samara, which has been working on single-family and multiunit dwellings that are quicker and cheaper to build, thanks to modular floorplans. While the brand’s co-founder and CPO, Joe Gebbia, hasn’t shared a starting cost, he told Fast Company last November: “We’re interested in thoughtfully exploring the opportunity and doing something transformative, similar to how Airbnb did when it started.”

New Story, a San Francisco charity, and construction technologies company Icon of Austin, debuted a rudimentary, 800-square-foot, 3-D printed home at South by Southwest last year that they said took under 24 hours to erect, at a cost of $10,000.

The idea is that the printed homes will last for centuries

Rethinking how homes are built is laudable. There are no bricklayers, drywall installers or specialist labor to wait on (or pay for). Takeshita says: “We’re eliminating a lot of the trades from the job site, which essentially speeds up our build time.”

The challenge, of course, is that technological progress does not occur in a vacuum. To say nothing of how unions might react to the automation of huge swaths of human labor, there is another, more profound challenge: simply breaking ground on a new development in California has become a daunting undertaking.

In San Francisco, for example, it takes nearly seven years and costs about $650,000 to navigate the thicket of environmental requirements, municipal building laws and nimbyism to get a single unit of low-income housing built, according to Brian Blalock, former head of policy at Tipping Point Community, a nonprofit combating poverty in the Bay Area.

Newsom campaigned on a pledge to build 3.5 million new homes by 2025, which would mean a production rate four times the state’s current one. He approved a lawsuit against Huntington Beach for failing to comply with a 1967 state law that requires cities to zone enough development land to accommodate the population. Forty-six other cities are also falling short, often by design, passing anti-development laws that make it difficult to meet state requirements. Newsom has hinted that he will use the courts as a cudgel against recalcitrant city councils.

There are also more straightforward, civically minded efforts from Big Tech. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced his foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, was spearheading a $500 million plan to build up to 8,000 affordable homes in the Bay Area, ground zero for the state’s housing crunch. Indeed, between 2012 and 2017 in the region, more than 370,000 new jobs were created but only 58,000 units were built to house the new recruits. Fred Blackwell, head of The San Francisco Foundation, a partner in the Zuckerberg plan, called it “a defining moment for the Bay Area.”

Google has also joined in. The search giant plans to build 8,000 new homes, including more than 1,000 low-income units, as part of a sprawling headquarters expansion it has proposed in Mountain View.

These are helpful gestures. But to roll back the slow-motion crisis taking hold in the state, Newsom will need to wipe away decades of overlapping regulations. He will need to bully cities into building. He will need to lead a housing revolution. And when he does, the 3-D printers, no doubt, will be waiting.

This story originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of C magazine.

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