iBuyers look to ramp up home purchases

Several tech companies are looking to purchase more American homes:

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“Our financial goal is to drive rapid growth at scale with sustained improvement in our profitability,” Opendoor, the industry pioneer, wrote in its letter to shareholders this week. After going public last year, Opendoor has now expanded into more than 40 markets and purchased 8,500 homes in the second quarter, more than any other quarter by almost 50%. The company, which is reportedly searching out a new $2 billion revolving credit facility, also announced this week that it is now willing to purchase the majority of homes in every one of its current markets.

Zillow announced similarly ambitious plans during its recent earnings call. While it bought only 3,800 homes in the second quarter, Zillow is gearing up to scale massively through the rest of 2021, saying that it expects its Homes division to bring in around $1.4-1.5 billion in revenue next quarter, roughly double what the division made this quarter…

iBuyers say that in exchange for money they offer convenience, quickly offering a number to homeowners who, if they accept, can then pick their exact move-out date, avoid showing their home, and use the money to immediately go house hunting. (Zillow says its goal is become a “housing market maker.”)…

Still, it’s difficult to deduce at this early moment whether adding high-tech firms to the real-estate market will be a net positive or negative for the typical American family, said Roberto G. Quercia, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Residential real estate remains the dominant form of wealth for such families, making up roughly 70% of median household net worth, so the answer could have potentially enormous ramifications for the country.

The biggest factor seems to be the marriage of tech capabilities and money. There are other actors in the market who have plenty of cash to use. There are plenty of websites and apps for real estate. Does putting them together offer unparalleled convenience or particular knowledge through algorithms and real estate data?

There are multiple sets of consequences to figure out. As the article notes, it is not clear if these new home selling options benefit consumers. More options or more competition could be good. What do other actors like lenders, developers, and realtors think about this? Additionally, many communities might have concerns about institutional buyers who can leverage technology and scale but do not necessarily have local knowledge or concern about local markets. Could these actions drive up prices beyond what regular buyers could afford?

Agglomeration, working from home, and the character of places

Why do certain industries cluster together in one location? Social scientists have answers:

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Economists believe agglomeration — like the clustering of tech in the Bay Area — has historically been the result of two main forces. The first is what they call “human capital spillovers” — a fancy way of saying that people get smarter and more creative when they’re around other smart and creative people. Think informal conversations, or “serendipitous interactions,” over coffee in the break room or beers at the bar. These interactions, the theory says, are crucial to generating great ideas, and they encourage the incubation and development of brainiac clusters. The other force is the power of “matching” opportunities. When lots of tech firms, workers and investors clustered in Silicon Valley, there were lots more opportunities for productive marriages between them. As a result, companies that wanted to recruit, grow or get acquired often gravitated to places like the Bay Area.

However, remote work could actually improve certain matching possibilities. Companies can hire smart people anywhere in the world when they drop the requirement that they physically be in a central office. Not only that, they can pay them less. Moreover, killing the office can significantly lower costs for companies, which no longer have to pay for expensive real estate.

So, in this theory, the future of work and the economic geography of America really hinges on whether companies can create those “human capital spillovers” through computer screens or in offices in cheaper locations.

This is a phenomenon with a pretty broad reach as cities could be viewed as clusters of firms and organizations. What has been interesting to me in this field in recent years is how places like this come to develop and what it means for the character of the place.

Take Silicon Valley as an example. This is the home of the tech industry and, as the article notes, the big firms have committed to physically being there with large headquarters (including Google, Apple, and Facebook). These headquarters and office parks are themselves interesting and often a post-World War Two phenomena as highways and suburbanization brought many companies out of downtowns to more sprawling campuses. At the same time, the impact of all of this on the communities nearby is also important. What happens when the interests of the big tech company and the community collide (see a recent example of a Facebook mixed-use proposal)? What did these communities used to be like and what are they?

This is bigger than just the idea of employees working from home. This potential shift away from clustering would affect places themselves and how they are experienced. If thousands of workers are no longer in Silicon Valley, what does this do to those communities and the communities in which more workers are now at home? Silicon Valley became something unique with this tech activity but it could be a very different kind of place in several decades if there is new activity and new residents.

The same could be said for many other communities. What is New York City if Wall Street and the finance industry clusters elsewhere or disperses across the globe? What happens to Los Angeles if Hollywood disperses? And so on. The character of places depends in part on these clusters, their size, and their history. If the agglomerations shift, so will the character of communities.

What will happen to those large, all-encompassing tech headquarters if employees can now work from home?

Employees in the tech industry may have more ability to work from home in the future:

Now that a large company like Twitter has announced the option to not return to the office, it will likely “drive momentum across the industry,” says Aaron Levie, the CEO and cofounder of Box. “Other companies look to those events as a signal for what they should do in their organization.”…

Not all companies are so eager to extend the work-from-home life. Employees at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino have been told they will start returning to Apple Park in phases, starting in late May. Apple’s security policies, meant to protect the company’s internal work, have reportedly made it difficult for employees to do their jobs while at home, especially if their jobs are related to building hardware….

Of course, Twitter is not abandoning the office altogether. In the wake of the pandemic, Box CEO Levie thinks bigger tech companies are more likely to take what he calls a “hybrid approach,” blending remote teams with in-office ones. “We’re still far from saying, ‘We’ll shut down entire offices,’” Levie says, adding that the realities of childcare would make it difficult for all employees to enjoy working from home permanently. “There’s a lot of power in people coming together, certain types of functions being able to collaborate in person, but there’s equally power in the flexibility and convenience of no commute and being able to work in a more efficient way.”

But other companies may reconsider the expense of office space, or at least downsize it, if enough employees choose to work remotely going forward. In 2017, Automattic—the company that owns WordPress—decided to give up its sprawling 15,000-square-foot office in San Francisco, because its employees never came in. For some smaller startups, this massive work-from-home experiment has made it obvious that they don’t need offices at all.

What does all of this mean for offices and headquarters and big campuses? The big office or work campus, such as those for Facebook, Apple, and Google, offers multiple advantages: the ability for people to meet, gather, and interact formally or informally face-to-face or in the same room; the company can know where everyone is; the ability for the company to control the work environment; and they are status symbols both for the companies and their communities.

But, working from home or away from the office also offers advantages: the employee is more in control of their immediate surroundings; there is limited commuting time; workers can connect via technology when needed and shut that off or limit contact when needing to focus; and expenses related to a big building are reduced.

And, as the article notes, the implications are huge for how organizations operate, what it means to be an employee, and for communities where businesses use land and pump money into the local economy. A more decentralized landscape for companies might reduce the need for cities to compete for headquarters (Amazon example) or even make the competition more cutthroat fighting over scraps. What happens to all that office space and how can communities fill vacant space in an era of budget issues?

For the record, I do not think the big offices will go away. At the least, they provide a physical reminder of the company and social interaction is different in-person than through technology. But, if a significant number of companies allow more employees to work from home, this could transform many physical locations.

Tech jobs continue to congregate in particular metropolitan regions

A new analysis looks at where tech jobs located between 2005 and 2017:

Researchers from the Brookings Institution and the Information Technology and Innovation Fund, a tech-industry-backed think tank, arrived at their conclusion by looking at a fairly narrow slice of jobs—13 industries that involve the highest rate of research and development spending and STEM degrees per worker. That includes much of the software industry, as well as jobs in areas like pharmaceuticals and aerospace. The researchers found that, between 2005 and 2017, five metro areas—San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, and Boston— not only added lots of jobs, they were also becoming more dominant in those industries overall.

TechJobsWired2005to2017

In part, that’s due to changes in what businesses need, says Enrico Moretti, an economist at UC Berkeley who wasn’t involved in the study. The enduring dominance of some tech hubs is somewhat counterintuitive. Technology was supposed to be a democratizing force—the internet and iPhone would make it possible to do innovative work from just about anywhere. But instead, high-tech industries became about proximity to your fellow high-tech workers. Businesses clustered around hubs of investment, in places where skilled workers could stick around after school, hop between jobs, and stay in touch with contacts. That plays out on an individual level too, Moretti says. In recent research tracking the patent activity of scientists as they moved in and out of places like the Bay Area, Moretti found that they were far more productive in those innovative hubs…

The researchers’ point is that it’s hard to build hubs of innovation from scratch—in places where the economy is really struggling, and where there’s little existing tech talent. Instead, you want to start with places that are already buzzing, and through a mix of investment—in things like R&D, education fellowships, and financing for small businesses—and tax incentives to encourage new business, nudge them to become innovation hubs. In other words, those places are already fertile ground for high-tech companies, but they need a little more fertilizer to get there. The researchers prefer federal investment to local subsidies that try to attract individual businesses—an often fruitless effort for smaller communities, as incidents like the downsized Foxconn factory in Wisconsin and Amazon’s HQ2 search demonstrate.

How exactly these centers of industry arise, thrive, and consolidate (and then maybe fade away or die?) is a good subject of academic study. Through a series of decisions, conditions, and good circumstances, agglomerations start. Inertia can carry them for a long time. As noted in the last paragraph, it can be difficult to introduce competition from other centers or create new centers once the main locations are well-established. Tech center do not just happen; they are the result of multiple social processes, interactions, and decisions.

Additionally, it is interesting to see that there is still a lot of value of actual physical locations near other businesses or organizations – even in a field that can render spatial and time distances less relevant. Being close to other people, being able to actually stop by or talk to them, still matters. All of this can add up to a location with a collection of similar organizations being more than the sum of its parts.

Geographic differences in venture capital, start ups

The race between cities to attract the tech industry is an uneven one as two graphics from a Wired story about a Denver startup illustrate:

*Combines San Francisco and San Jose metro areas. Sources: Apartment List, Brookings Institution, Pitchbook

Are efforts to replicate Silicon Valley in different places that much different than trying to copy the High Line? While it is popular to try to attract the tech industry and similar businesses – see Richard Florida’s work as an example – it is not an easy task. Even technology, with all its possibilities to span times and space, is often an embodied industry. Why would Apple pay so much attention to their new building? Why does the tech industry seem to develop in clusters like Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside of Boston?

More broadly, it takes times for communities to develop and often a series of decisions and events are required. Intentional efforts may or may not lead to a flourishing tech sector in a particular location as it is difficult to apply and carry out a particular formula. These developments are often contingent on a number of previous factors. For example, the tech industry seemed to rise up near research universities (Stanford in the Bay Area, multiple schools in the Boston area). It takes a lot (in both time and resources) to develop such educational settings. Success in developing a tech cluster should be measured in decades rather than years.