Can a Handful of Silicon Valley Billionaires Fix the Bay Area’s Housing Crisis?

In NYT’s “The Farmers Had What the Billionaires Wanted,” we meet a man who wants to build a city in the middle of nowhere, and folks who are slowing him down. For now.

PUBLISHED JAN 28, 2024 10:22 P.M.
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Conor Dougherty and Erin Griffith, New York Times reporters based in Los Angeles and the Bay Area respectively, dropped a bomb back in August when they disclosed a secret plan to build a utopia in in California’s Central Valley.

The idea was as simple as it was audacious: “Take an arid patch of brown hills cut by a two-lane highway between suburbs and rural land, and convert it into a community with tens of thousands of residents, clean energy, public transportation and dense urban life.”

One of the more intriguing and/or terrifying elements of the story was the cast of characters behind the plan. In a followup article last week, The Farmers Had What the Billionaires Wanted, Dougherty offered this context.

“The idea would have been treated as a joke if it weren’t backed by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who included Michael Moritz, the venture capitalist; Reid Hoffman, the investor and co-founder of LinkedIn; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of the Emerson Collective and the widow of the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.”

Dougherty’s most recent piece is a yarn built around another handful of fascinating characters.

Christine and Dan Mahoney run a Solano County sheep ranch that his great grandfather established in 1877. As the story begins, California Forever, the company backed by the billionaires, is suing the Mahoneys to force them to sell their land—a tactic it has been employing in the region for a number of years.

With the help of Times photographer Aaron Wojack, Dougherty helps us get to know the Mahoneys, and offers a glimpse into California farm life that we rarely see. 

We also meet Jan Sramek, the 36-year-old Czeck-born entrepreneur who gave birth to the project and convinced a bunch of powerful people to give him close to a billion dollars. He presented a different California ethos—one with which we are more familiar: “Mr. Sramek, meanwhile, talks about growth in moral terms, as if progress and wealth are simpatico and the most consequential people are those who build big things and a fortune along the way.”

The most remarkable thing about this man Sramek is his astonishing faith in (or naivete about) his project. With a couple of relatively minor successes behind him—in tech fields that have nothing at all to do with urban development—he believes he can achieve what would be by far the biggest deal in California right now.

In a state where it can take years to get a duplex approved, Mr. Sramek seems to have calculated that his project is too big to fail. Developers, planners and lawyers I spoke to all expected the project to either never happen or take at least 20 years. Whether out of bluster, delusion or confidence, Mr. Sramek, who recently bought a house in nearby Fairfield, said he had promised his wife that their infant daughter would start school in the development he wanted to build.”

Perhaps this audacity should not be surprising. Recall that Sramek comes from the same neighborhood as Peter Thiel, the billionaire who wants to build cities in the ocean, and of course Elon Musk, who sincerely believes that humanity will one day colonize Mars.

In order for this plan to move forward, voters will need to approve the East Solano Homes, Jobs, and Clean Energy Initiative, which will come to a vote in November. That alone is a long shot, but then again fortune favors the bold.

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