From Zillow and Amazon to Fuse IQ and Seattle In Progress, tech companies large and small are stepping up to help address some of the challenges of the Seattle region’s affordable housing and homelessness crisis.
Housing advocates, elected leaders and many in the software industry agree that the tech sector bears some responsibility for working on housing solutions. The industry, with average salaries in Washington of nearly $130,000, has helped fuel the affordable-housing shortage, and is also uniquely situated to provide some of the remedies through better technology.
One of those innovations is a new initiative from Zillow, the Seattle-based company that’s a top site for real-estate sales and apartment and home rental listings.
Zillow’s Community Pillar program makes it easier for people with less-than-stellar housing applications to find landlords and property managers more inclined to rent to them. The landlords self-identify as willing to consider renters who have poor credit reports, past evictions, criminal records, spotty work or rental histories, or some combination of application issues.
“Being able to find landlords in a market that is competitive, who are willing to look at lower screening criteria … it’s a high, high need in King County,” said Larry Todd, who does outreach work with landlords through the nonprofit YWCA Landlord Liaison Project.
While there are efforts to expand the number of low-income housing units, including a recent push by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to increase funding and the upcoming Seattle Housing Levy vote in August, local advocates also emphasize the important role of private-property owners in relieving the housing shortage.
“We’ll never build our way out of it — we have to work with existing landlords,” Todd said.
Other tech companies and nonprofits have been stepping forward as well to help address some of these challenges.
“There are unique reasons why this issue of housing and homelessness and inequity in general should be a primary concern for the tech industry,” said Ethan Phelps Goodman, founder of Seattle in Progress, a website and app that maps development and addresses development policies.
And when it comes to these issues, “people in tech are paying more attention than they did, say, five years ago,” he said. “There is a real growing awareness of the tech industry’s role in this and the policy alternatives before us.”
Last week Amazon said that it was partnering with the nonprofit Mary’s Place to temporarily establish shelter for up to 200 people, including families. The company is converting a former Travelodge hotel in Seattle into housing, according to a story in the Seattle Times. The shelter will operate for approximately a year before Amazon begins construction of office space on the site.
In the past six months, Google and Comcast announced grants, donations and policies to provide free internet access and better rates for access to some low-income residents in the area.
Another example of local engagement on the issue comes from AIGA Seattle, a professional organization for designers, which this month is getting started on its annual Design for Good Changemaker Series and decided to focus on helping nonprofits working on housing and homelessness.
“We need to figure out better solutions,” said Joel Meyers, who is part of the group’s effort and also a founder of Fuse IQ, which has done website and tech-audit projects at discounted rates for nonprofits working on housing and low-income issues, including the YWCA and FareStart.
Community Pillar isn’t Zillow’s first affordable-housing endeavor. In February last year the company hosted “Hack Housing,” where teams used public government data to develop solutions for helping people find affordable and accessible places to live, particularly first-time homebuyers, senior citizens and low-income renters.
Zillow’s Rebekah Bastian, VP of product teams for the company, is the driving force behind Community Pillar. She recruited colleagues to work on the project during Zillow’s hack week — an event occurring three times a year during which employees can put aside their regular assignments to work on “passion projects.”
“We have a lot of socially-minded employees here,” Bastian said. So last summer, a group of them built a tool that allows landlords to identify themselves as participating in Community Pillar. More than 10,000 landlords and property managers are part of the effort nationwide.
During another hack week, Zillow engineers created a function that launched earlier this year that allows renters to filter for Community Pillar participants and properties that are limited to people with lower-incomes. On a recent search, 17 properties, some with multiple units, popped up as Puget-Sound area rentals meeting these criteria.
Tammy Leland, director of apartment operations for Cascade Management, which rents 224 units from north Seattle to Renton, is part of Community Pillar.
“It was a way for us to help people who have had some problem in their past and are trying to clean that up,” Leland said.
In her experience, many of them are great renters. “These people are trying to put their lives back together, so they’re pretty careful,” Leland said. They don’t want to risk losing their home and blowing the opportunity to improve their track record.
Bastian is eager for the program to continue growing and hopes to develop additional solutions for helping some of the 4,500 homeless people in the Seattle and King County area as well as the some 170,000 people statewide struggling to find affordable housing.
“As more tech companies grow in Seattle and the population becomes more affluent, we’re pushing people out. The people who can afford to live in Seattle have a responsibility [to help],” Bastian said. “We have a huge opportunity because some many of these problems have great technical solutions that haven’t been worked on.”