“I want to talk about the elephant in the room,” said Zach Kirk, 20, a Stanford University student who grew up in Palo Alto. “Actually, he’s not in the room, he’s in some mansion: Mark Zuckerberg.”
Wherever Mr. Zuckerberg goes in Silicon Valley, he seems to generate a housing problem. In 2014, after the tech mogul bought a house in San Francisco, neighbors complained about construction, his security detail, the parking and how his presence would inflate prices. Earlier this year, protesters marched in East Palo Alto to denounce the displacement of residents because of big tech companies like Facebook.
The battles are likely to grow as Facebook continues its expansion in Menlo Park, with 1.75 million square feet of new office space expected to be built. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has also been growing, staffing up as it prepares to invest Mr. Zuckerberg’s enormous fortune in efforts like his stated goal to “cure, prevent, and manage all disease.”
Community members expect more tension later this month at an East Palo Alto town hall hosted by Real Community Coalition, a local citizens group, and featuring Facebook. At the meeting, residents will have the opportunity to ask Facebook executives questions about the company’s role in the community.
“Connections are at the core of everything we do at Facebook and our relationship with residents of East Palo Alto is no different,” Juan Salazar, a public policy manager for Facebook, said in a statement.
The social network has been lobbying to build more housing in the region, which Silicon Valley cities, worried about traffic and preferring a commercial over residential tax base, have fought against. In East Palo Alto, Facebook has invested $18.5 million into the Catalyst Housing Fund, an affordable housing initiative; the company has set a goal to grow the fund to $75 million.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is also writing grants for affordable housing, said working side by side with local communities was “core to our work.” In a statement, the Primary School said the episode with the R.V. residents was “frustrating and emblematic of larger housing issues in the Bay Area,” but that it was not aware of East Palo Alto’s action to evict those residents and had not engaged with city officials on the matter.
East Palo Alto’s residents have long felt disempowered against change brought by tech leaders like Mr. Zuckerberg. A 2.6-square-mile town where one-third of the school children are homeless, it has stood as a sign that Silicon Valley’s wealth might not spread to those beyond its tech campuses. And so even as Mr. Zuckerberg’s limited liability company seeks to build a school here, many of its residents are skeptical.
“CZI’s just walking into something with a lot of baggage,” said Daniel Saver, a lawyer with the Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, which receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “People here have been pushed around by very big interests and have been taken advantage of for decades. ”
Paul Bains, a pastor and president of Project WeHope, a local organization funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said that the initiative needed to figure out how to interact with wary residents. “They have to learn how to communicate with communities of color,” Mr. Bains said.
The recent evictions at the R.V. enclave were not requested by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said Donna Rutherford, an East Palo Alto City Council member and a former mayor of the town. Instead, city officials said the area had become a flood hazard as rains were coming and the vehicles had spilled wastewater into storm drains.