Meet your new landlord: Google

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Meet your new landlord: Google
After years of running up against housing shortages, companies like Google, Meta, and Disney are taking matters into their own hands.Arantza Pena Popo/Business Insider

The digital renderings of North Bayshore, a massive proposed development in Mountain View, California, are crowded with glistening buildings and cheerful, animated pedestrians. There's a lot to show off, including 7,000 new homes, three distinct neighborhoods, and nearly 300,000 square feet of retail and community space. Notably, though, the gleaming images don't bear any hints of the company behind the whole endeavor: Google.

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Companies like Google and Facebook's parent, Meta, conquered the digital realm a long time ago, setting the ground rules for how we search, interact, and shop online. Not content to stop there, however, these firms are now making huge bids to expand their reach. They want to be landlords, too.

Across the country, corporations are using their considerable sway and resources to build modern company towns — mini-cities that will feature all the trappings of traditional civic life, including housing, shops, and public spaces. These new projects won't have corporate logos on every building, and many of the units will be available to the general public, not just employees. But in the grand scheme of real estate, they're distinct: After years of running up against housing shortages in their backyards, companies like Google, Meta, and Disney — not exactly known for building new homes — are taking matters into their own hands. Their creations have boring names like Middlefield Park and Willow Village, but they might as well be called Zucktown or Google City, USA. And while the developments promise thousands of new homes, the plans are also a tacit acknowledgment of the bleak state of the American housing market and the roles these companies have played in driving up home prices near their sprawling HQs.

The companies behind these projects argue that they can help solve the country's lack of affordable housing, but it's fair to approach the plans with a healthy degree of skepticism. America's single-employer "company towns'' have a long, bloody history of exploitation and labor strife. While the current plans hardly represent a return to those dark days of the 19th and early-20th centuries, they probably won't usher in a new era of futuristic techno-utopias, either. Judging by the plans that have been publicly unveiled so far, the Googles and Metas of the world aren't aiming nearly that high. Instead, their visions of city living spaces look a lot like what we're already used to seeing from modern real-estate developers: glassy office buildings, verdant parks, and walkable main streets with coffee shops, salad bars, and alluring apartment buildings. It's nice, but not exactly groundbreaking stuff.

Rather than the floating cities or domed villages once dreamed up by science-fiction writers (and Peter Thiel), these watered-down plans show that what these companies have been after all along is a way to one-up their competitors. They want to attract and retain top employees, and ideally get them back in the office, too. It doesn't hurt that right now, residential real estate looks like a pretty good bet. The noble aim of building more housing, including affordably priced units, is the cherry on top. But make no mistake: These companies will only pursue these plans as long as they fit their business goals.

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The modern company towns

After years of planning, teasing, and slogging through local board meetings, the latest iterations of company towns are picking up steam. In June, Mountain View's city council approved the master plan for Google's North Bayshore project, a partnership between the tech giant and the Australian real-estate firm Lendlease. The new community will replace a suburban office park with a sprawling new neighborhood in the heart of Silicon Valley. The plans call for as many as 7,000 new homes across "a mix of income levels," as well as parks, restaurants, shops, and more than 3 million square feet of office space on 153 acres. Roughly 15% of those units will be priced below market rate, although the city hasn't settled upon the exact income thresholds that will determine who can apply for the units. Mountain View also greenlighted the master plan for Middlefield Park, another Google development that proposes to tear down existing office and industrial buildings and construct nearly 2,000 new housing units, as well as more office and retail spaces.

Other household names are getting in on the action. Last year, Menlo Park's city council voted unanimously in favor of the plans for Willow Village, Facebook's 59-acre project that's also affectionately, or cynically, referred to as "Zucktown." It promises more than 1,700 homes, as well as office, hotel, and retail, right next to Meta's headquarters at 1 Hacker Way. Walt Disney World also plans to break ground next year on 1,400 affordable housing units across 80 acres a few miles from its flagship theme park in Florida, the company said in the spring. Nearby, the competing resort company Universal is also building 1,000 affordable apartments and 16,000 square feet of retail space. While the companies will continue to own the land the homes will be built upon, in each of these cases, they're partnering with traditional real-estate firms to build and operate the buildings. In other words, you wouldn't end up cutting a rent check directly to Google. And anyone who meets the criteria can apply to rent the units — not just employees.

Meet your new landlord: Google
An aerial rendering of Catchlight Crossings, the 20-acre affordable-housing development that will be built on land set aside by Universal Destinations & Experiences in Central Florida.Wendover Housing Partners

Other companies are trying a different tack. Remember Amazon's HQ2 hunt? The nationwide search had cities like Hartford, Connecticut, and Toledo, Ohio, tripping over themselves to offer the most generous economic incentives as the e-commerce titan searched for its second home and a place to put roughly 25,000 workers. The project ultimately landed in Arlington, Virginia, and the first phase of HQ2 opened in May, with two 22-story office buildings and a new public park. Amazon isn't building housing directly the way Google and Facebook are, but the $2 billion Amazon Housing Equity Fund has committed to support other housing development in the DC area, Nashville, and Seattle, extending the company's direct influence beyond office space to housing markets that will almost surely feel the effects of its expansion for years to come.

Of course, it wouldn't be a proper discussion of techno-utopias if Elon Musk's name didn't enter the chat. The embattled exec is reportedly laying the groundwork for a new town called Snailbrook on thousands of acres near Austin, where employees of his various companies, including the Boring Co., Tesla, and SpaceX, could one day live at below-market prices.

It's no surprise that the largest of the new developments are the brainchildren of Silicon Valley giants. The modern tech industry was built on a California-tinted brand of utopianism and the belief that "connecting people" is the answer to many of the world's problems, Grant Bollmer, a senior lecturer in digital media at the University of Queensland in Australia, told me. After all the digital ad dollars have been hoovered up and all the attention squeezed out of our screen-addled eyeballs, the next logical step is building a new city where the founding principles of the tech world can be put into practice. Just look at the pie-in-the-sky plans for California Forever, the proposal from Silicon Valley elites to turn 55,000 acres of rural land into the city of the future. Billionaires with time on their hands, it seems, simply can't help themselves.

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"Faith in democracy is weak, and so you have this view of, 'We can create an ideal city and ideal world,'" Bollmer told me. "'We can structure it according to the principles that are built into these technologies that we've created and the values that we've created.'"

But companies are also ruthlessly pragmatic, profit-making machines beholden to shareholders who closely watch their every move. High-minded ideals aside, the modern company towns also make for sound business propositions, Margaret Crawford, a professor of architecture and chair of the urban design program at the University of California, Berkeley, told me. These firms are interested in two things: retaining skilled labor and drumming up positive publicity that makes them look civic-minded. Building housing near their HQs checks off both those boxes: Commuting is the top reason employees don't want to go back to the office full time, according to Gallup, while the lack of affordable housing in cities is forcing more people to move further from where offices are often located, research from Fannie Mae found. In a recent piece for Harvard Business Review, the economist Edward Glaeser and the consultant Atta Tarki argued that companies should think of housing assistance as just one part of a broader benefits package, next to on-site chefs or an office gym, that encourages employees to stick around and be more productive. Even if these projects aren't explicitly for employees, it's conceivable that they'll be favored by workers who are eager to skip all that traffic on the way to their desks.

Affordable housing near offices makes for good press and also makes good business sense. But the second new housing doesn't fit a business' goals — if a company is slashing jobs or abandoning office space — they'll probably pump the brakes on grand plans for a new neighborhood as well. Crafting new cities is complicated, time-intensive work. And if history has taught us anything, it's that they are often doomed to fail.

A worrying history

The company towns of the 19th and 20th centuries also bore some of that utopian flavor, at least in theory. In many cases, company towns were a practical response to the need for housing near factories or lumber mills, which were typically located in barren locations without the kinds of amenities that would keep workers happy, like churches or libraries. The Hershey Company town in Pennsylvania, founded around 1909, prioritized these kinds of community assets from the start, while also offering affordable homes that workers could rent or own. At one point, 3% of the US population lived in company towns, according to The Economist.

People begin to view the company as the golden goose. They don't want to do anything that offends the company.

But the idea of a place dominated by a single corporation — where your boss not only owns your home but also runs your church and your kids' schools and sells you everything you need at the company store — was always a fraught proposition. In many company towns, the corporations used the setup to maintain their social control, threatening disgruntled workers with eviction from company housing if they went on strike. When your company is your entire world, the stakes are infinitely higher.

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"One of the things that happens sort of quickly is people begin to view the company as the golden goose," Hardy Green, the author of "The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy," told me. "They don't want to do anything that offends the company."

Company towns gradually disintegrated as workers' wages rose and they gained access to cars, which enabled them to live farther from the factories and achieve more autonomy. Today, the experiment is mostly remembered as a failure, characterized by poor working conditions and frequent clashes with unions.

This time is different

Given the history of company-built housing, it's fair to wonder which way the new iterations will lean: toward the idealized version of cheaper housing and prized amenities, or a more dystopian outcome in which we become more reliant on companies that have already infiltrated every aspect of our lives.

The graveyard of abandoned projects may offer some clues as to what comes next. In May 2020, Sidewalk Labs, an offshoot of Google's parent company, Alphabet, walked away from plans to build a new, tech-heavy neighborhood on 12 acres along Toronto's waterfront. The company officially said its partnership with the city folded because of the pandemic, but it turned out that the company had been quietly making plans to acquire 800 acres of adjacent land for an entire Google campus and a testing ground for some of its wilder technologies. When it unveiled those plans, both the public and local elected officials turned against the idea, stymieing and eventually killing the whole project.

Google's representatives had pitched the initial neighborhood as "the most innovative district in the entire world," so maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise that its ambitions extended far beyond a mere 12 acres. But the missteps, and the eventual death of the project, reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of how developers work with city governments, Josh O'Kane, a reporter who closely chronicled the plans for Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper and later wrote a book on the whole saga, told me. All the money in the world couldn't turn public opinion, and the local quasi-governmental partners refused to be steamrolled.

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It's easy to either say the company is benevolent or menacing. But the reality is somewhere in between.

Google's plans in Mountain View, by comparison, are much tamer. All that talk about a city of the future has been replaced with language touting affordable housing and more traditional spaces for local businesses and public parks. The project is still huge, to be sure, but Google had once talked about playing "a much bigger role in public life" than what's outlined in the current plans, O'Kane told me.

Maybe Google, and other big companies, did learn a lesson from that debacle in Toronto. It certainly looks like they're trying a different tactic now: proposing more traditional projects filled with urban-planning buzzwords like "mixed-use" and "walkable," rather than pitching sci-fi villages where robots pick up your trash and your Facebook profile is your ID card.

That's why the question of which extreme these new company towns will settle upon — a tech-forward utopia or a regime of all-powerful overlords — is probably moot. The true outcome will likely fall somewhere in that not-so-exciting middle, Crawford of UC Berkeley, told me. Nevertheless, it's worth remembering that these aren't your average real-estate developers.

"I guess my motto is, it's complicated," Crawford told me. "It's easy to either say the company is benevolent or menacing. But the reality is somewhere in between."


James Rodriguez is a senior reporter on Insider's Discourse team.

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