Elon Musk’s series of tweets suggesting changes to Twitter Inc. included at least one question that attracted attention from a fellow billionaire: Should the company convert its San Francisco headquarters into a homeless shelter?
The idea was taken as a jab at both the city of San Francisco, which has grappled with a deepening homeless crisis, and at Twitter, whose employees have been told they can work remotely forever. Perhaps the building would be better used as homeless housing, Musk seemed to imply, “since no one shows up anyway.”
Musk is prone to wild ideas, and the suggestion is likely moot given that he is no longer taking a board seat with the social-media giant. But more than 90% of the almost 2 million respondents answered yes to Sunday’s now-deleted poll, highlighting how potent the homelessness issue has become. Jeff Bezos weighed in to tout Amazon.com Inc.’s work with Mary’s Place, an organization that in 2020 opened a 200-bed permanent shelter on the company’s Seattle campus.
“Worked out great and makes it easy for employees who want to volunteer,” Bezos wrote in response to Musk. The company has donated money, food and space to the organization since 2016, part of its efforts to address criticism for driving up housing prices and displacing locals.
The world’s two richest men — with a combined fortune of more than $420 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index — have plenty of means at their disposal to help ease homelessness in their cities. Yet it’s proven to be an intractable issue for West Coast cities with gaping inequality. San Francisco was home to more than 9,800 unhoused people as of the last released count in 2019, up more than 30% from two years earlier, according to a city point-in-time estimate that is likely a significant undercount.
San Francisco’s tech companies have been called upon to help the city address its housing shortage before, to mixed effect. Former Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey was among the opponents of a 2018 ballot measure to tax businesses to pay for homeless services, donating at least $75,000 personally to the effort to kill it. The measure, known as Prop C, ultimately passed in 2018, and became law in 2020 after a court battle. It’s expected to unlock an extra $340 million for homelessness initiatives a year.
One of San Francisco’s other prominent billionaires, Salesforce.com Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff, has made homelessness a focus for his philanthropies. In recent years, he and his wife have donated more than $30 million of their personal wealth and $10.9 million through Salesforce. Together with the company, he also poured $7.9 million into the campaign to pass Prop C.
Twitter’s headquarters building is managed and partly owned by Shorenstein Properties, which declined to comment on Musk’s idea. City officials said that if the owners were to pursue homeless housing, they would be welcome to. “From a regulatory perspective, converting this building into a homeless shelter would be fairly straightforward,” said Dan Sider, chief of staff for the San Francisco Planning Department. “It would be slightly more complex to convert it into either permanent affordable housing or transitional housing for the formerly homeless, but still eminently doable.”
Feasibility is one thing, likelihood is another. After buying the building in 2011 for $110 million, Shorenstein spent another roughly $300 million to renovate it. The property was later recapitalized with additional owners, according to the San Francisco Business Times. It’s unlikely that the owners would repurpose its space for unhoused tenants considering how much Shorenstein paid to overhaul to building, said Randy Shaw, the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.
“It’s just never going to happen,” Shaw said. “It’s just preposterous.” One immediate way Twitter could help its neighborhood, he said, would be to encourage employees to show up to the office and patronize the local businesses that rely on lunchtime foot traffic, or to donate more money to regional housing affordability efforts. A Twitter spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The “single biggest impediment to building affordable housing is a lack of funding,” said Sider. “If Mr. Musk’s tweet is a sign of his interest in helping us overcome that hurdle, we would welcome it with open arms.”
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