Europe’s Silicon Valley? No thanks

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CAMBRIDGE, England — This city wears many crowns: the fastest growing in Britain, the world’s most intensive research cluster and the university with the highest number of tech founders.

It also has Britain’s second highest level of inequality and one of the lowest amounts of rainfall of any U.K. city.

The tension between those titles has come to a head in the government’s bid to turn Cambridge into “Europe’s Silicon Valley.” Housing Secretary Michael Gove wants to build more than 150,000 new homes there by 2040, more than doubling the city’s size and triple the number local planners had earmarked for the area.

“Nowhere is the future being shaped more decisively than in Cambridge,” Gove said in a speech in December. “Its global leadership in life sciences and tech is a huge national asset. But until now… its growth has been constrained.”

He envisaged a new quarter with “beautiful Neo-classical buildings, rich parkland, concert halls and museums.” A new development corporation would be established to deliver the vision “regardless of the shifting sands of Westminster,” Gove said.

But in the face of mass house-building and water shortages; the investors, city leaders, businesses and environmentalists POLITICO spoke to for this article were skeptical of the scale of the government’s ambitions for their city.

They say they have other ideas.

Growing in a drought

The biggest obstacle to the city’s growth plans is a shortage of water. 

Plans for 9,000 homes and 300,000 square meters of research space, including a new cancer hospital, are being held up after the Environment Agency raised fears about water scarcity. Meanwhile, the area’s local water utility, Cambridge Water, is having to rework its latest management plan to account for the government’s inflated target.

The city pumps its water from underground chalk aquifers, but its rivers and streams are drying up. Levels in the River Cam have been 10 centimeters below their 2013 average for the last four summers.

“There is absolutely no point talking to us about expansion… unless you can solve the water problem,” said Cambridge Science Park director Jane Hutchins.

The science park wants to build a new campus and Hutchins said “we need to be able to accommodate growth at pace and in a timely manner, but we are all very conscious that we can’t do it at the cost of the environment.”

The Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire has expressed similar concerns.

Plans for 9,000 homes and 300,000 square meters of research space are being held up after the Environment Agency raised fears about water scarcity | Cambridge City Council

The government has put £3 million into a water scarcity group and hopes a new reservoir in the Fens will solve the problem. But that is at least ten years away. In the meantime it is looking to rainwater harvesting, reducing consumption and a new pipeline.

Gove said in December that “new steps to help manage demand for water in new developments” would come in the new year.

Investors, tech founders and university leaders told POLITICO the water supply problem can be overcome, but environmentalists see it as an existential threat.

Sitting in a rooftop restaurant above the Cam, Tony Eva, whose film Pure Clean Water examines the city’s water crisis, said: “How many times can you say we will solve the problems caused by growth with more growth?”

“The shortage of water is not a new feature, we have known [about it] for 60 to 70 years… These clever people have sat on their hands and now they are having to do something. In one sense it is too late.”

Grow your own way

Wendy Blythe, chair of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, agreed.

She argues that Cambridge has had enough growth and the “goodies” should go to less affluent parts of the country. Critics of Gove’s plan point out that the minister in charge of “leveling up” is putting forward a policy that could do the opposite.

“Lots of things are happening to Cambridge to become a ‘Silicon Valley,’ and ordinary residents are paying for it,” Blythe said.

Grappling with these problems is Tabitha Goldstaub, a tech entrepreneur and executive director of Innovate Cambridge, a group set up by the university and investors to come up with a more sustainable innovation strategy.

“We’d like to be as successful [as Silicon Valley] but we don’t want to be as socially unequal,” she said.

Income inequality in Cambridge, measured as the gap between the poorest and richest residents, is the second highest in England and Wales, only behind Oxford, and it is widening.

But Goldstaub said the city had “woken up” to the challenge and that supporting local people was a key pillar of an innovation strategy which it unveiled in October.

Income inequality in Cambridge is the second highest in England and Wales | Cambridge City Council

Innovate Cambridge hopes to get the wider population behind that strategy by showing the benefits of living close to so much research, such as better cancer survival rates at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

It has also set up a community fund for founders to pledge a percentage of money they make from selling their startups in the future. 

Pro-vice-chancellor for enterprise at Cambridge University, Andy Neely, said: “We need to make it clear to people why the research and cluster is improving the quality of their lives.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities says investing in Cambridge will reduce regional inequality. A spokesperson for the department told POLITICO: “We must be ambitious and expand the city and we will only do that through sustainable development.”

We’ll think, you’ll make

On the three-minute walk from the city’s main railway station to the office of VC firm Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC), you pass offices for Apple, Microsoft and Amazon. But the city is more proud of the startups which have spun out of its university.

New arrival Gerard Grech, who has joined the university to lead a program supporting tech founders, said he was astounded by the innovation in the city. “In my first week here I met someone who had sold businesses to Google, to Apple and to Microsoft. I could not believe it,” he said.

The area around the station is also where Goldstaub hopes to build a new innovation center, where she sees VCs, researchers and startups mingling and coming up with new ideas.

But despite its concentration of creativity, some say the government’s “Silicon Valley” ambitions should be spread across larger parts of the country, rather than focusing on Cambridge.

The city has recently signed a partnership with Manchester to pitch their respective tech hubs as a single cluster to investors, and Goldstaub says such deals should be “the exemplar” going forward.

Semiconductor firm Pragmatic provides a model for this type of development. The company is aiming to become the U.K.’s biggest semiconductor manufacturer, and its founders moved from Manchester to Cambridge for its talent. It is still headquartered in Cambridge, but does most of its manufacturing in Sedgefield, north-east England.

CIC was an early investor in Pragmatic, which completed a £500 million funding round this month.

Andrew Williamson, managing partner at CIC, said this was an example of “a hub and spoke” model which Cambridge excels in.

A report on the university’s economic impact suggests it is generating £30 billion of economic value in the U.K. and supporting 86,000 jobs | Cambridge City Council

“Where the model differs from Silicon Valley is Cambridge is 150,000 people… so we are tiny. What we can do here is fundamental research and the first few steps of the commercialization of that research, but we’re clearly not going to do manufacturing at scale.”

Sai Shivareddy has learned that over the last two years. He co-founded Nyobolt, which designs and manufactures super-fast chargers and batteries for EVs.

The company spun-out from the university and was valued at £300 million last year, but it has struggled to find suitable manufacturing sites in Cambridgeshire. Shivareddy said he is now looking to manufacture in north England or Scotland, as well as Asia.

Giving out the goodies

A report on the university’s economic impact suggests it is already helping the leveling up agenda by generating £30 billion of economic value in the U.K. and supporting 86,000 jobs, more than 30,000 of which are outside the east of England.

“The way the U.K. will compete with Silicon Valley is to think in large clusters,” Neely said, pointing to the Oxford-Cambridge Arc and the Manchester partnership. 

“Cambridge can play a really powerful role providing the boosters but it can’t just be Cambridge.”

Rebecca Simmons, chief operations office at Cambridge quantum firm Riverlane, agreed. “I don’t think Cambridge can do it all,” she said. “If we want to get bigger, we have to do it across the country. Particularly in the quantum world — Oxford, Bristol, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, they’ve all got good hubs mostly based around universities.”

“It’s important that we step up and connect the dots between the various cities in this country,” said Grech, who led startup incubator Tech Nation for a decade. “For me, Silicon Valley is a mindset. I think we should basically adopt its mindset and apply it everywhere.”

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‘Living in despair and hopelessness’: A lack of affordable housing can put people’s health at risk | CNN


When Louana Joseph’s son had a seizure because of an upper respiratory infection in July, she abandoned the apartment her family had called home for nearly three years.

She suspected the gray and brown splotches spreading through the apartment were mold and had caused her son’s illness. Mold can trigger and exacerbate lung diseases such as asthma and has been linked to upper respiratory tract conditions.

But leaving the two-bedroom Atlanta apartment meant giving up a home that rented for less than $1,000 a month, a price that is increasingly hard to find even in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

“I am looking everywhere,” said Joseph, who is 33. “Right now, I can’t afford it.”

Since then, Joseph, her 3-year-old son, and infant daughter have teetered on the edge of homelessness. They have shuffled between sleeping in an extended-stay motel and staying with relatives, unsure when they might find a permanent place to live.

A nationwide affordable housing crisis has wreaked havoc on the lives of low-income families, like Joseph’s, who are close to the brink. Their struggle to stay a step ahead of homelessness is often invisible.

Rents soared during the pandemic, exacerbating an already-severe shortage of available housing in most U.S. cities. The result will be growing numbers of people stuck in substandard housing, often with environmental hazards that put them at higher risk for asthma, lead poisoning, and other medical conditions, according to academic researchers and advocates for people with low incomes. These residents’ stress levels are heightened by the difficulties they face paying rent.

“People are living in despair and hopelessness,” said Ma’ta Crawford, a member of the Human Relations Commission in Greenville County, South Carolina, who works with families living in extended-stay motels.

Housing instability — such as having trouble paying rent, living in crowded conditions, or moving frequently — can have negative consequences on health, according to the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

In addition to potentially facing environmental risks, people who struggle with housing insecurity put off doctor visits, can’t afford food, and have trouble managing chronic conditions.

Losing a home can also trigger a mental health crisis. The suicide rate doubled from 2005 to 2010, when foreclosures, including those on rental properties, were historically high, according to a 2014 analysis, published in the American Journal of Public Health, that looked at 16 states.

Rents jumped 18% nationally from the first three months of 2021 to early 2022. And there is no county in the country where a minimum-wage worker could afford a two-bedroom rental home, according to an August report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Nationwide, only 36 affordable housing units are available for every 100 people in need, forcing many families to cobble together temporary shelter.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Crawford said. “Every motel here has a school bus stop.”

In the Southeast, evictions are more common than anywhere else in the nation, says an analysis published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Georgia has 19 evictions for every 100 renter households, according to data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. There are 23 evictions for every 100 renter households in South Carolina, and Virginia has 15 evictions per 100 renter households. The national rate is about eight evictions per 100.

Despite President Joe Biden’s promises to address the affordable housing shortage, researchers and activists say inflation — and Democratic deal-making — is only worsening the health threat.

Last year, the Biden administration included billions of dollars in the “Build Back Better” bill to increase the number of Housing Choice vouchers — a difficult-to-get benefit that helps people with low incomes pay rent. Under the voucher program, also known as Section 8, recipients put 30% of their income toward rent, and the federal government pays the remainder. Currently only 1 in 4 people who qualify receive the vouchers because of limited funding.

But lawmakers stripped out the provision that raised the number of vouchers, a compromise to pass the bill that became known as the Inflation Reduction Act.

About 2.3 million households rely on the program to help pay rent. Joseph applied years ago but has yet to receive any benefits.

The day before her son was born in September 2019, Joseph moved into an apartment complex in southwestern Atlanta, one of the poorest sections of the city. A year later, she upgraded to a two-bedroom unit in the same complex that cost $861 a month, far less than the typical apartment in metro Atlanta.

Recently, Joseph returned to the two-bedroom apartment to show KHN its condition. What appeared to be mold surfaced after a pipe burst and the air conditioning broke, but the complex owners did little to fix the situation, Joseph said.

The gray and brown splotches were on her mattress, sofa, and other plastic-wrapped belongings. They covered boxes of diapers stacked on dressers, an Elmo doll lying facedown, a child’s sneaker, and pink onesies.

After a pipe burst and the air conditioning broke in Louana Joseph's apartment, gray and black splotches covered a ventilation grille.

A property manager at Seven Courts Apartments, where Joseph lived, declined to comment when reached by phone. The management company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A few months after leaving the apartment, Joseph and her two children moved in with her sister in Orlando, Florida, with their remaining possessions — a car and some clothes.

A lack of affordable housing can force families with low incomes, like Joseph’s, to endure health risks such as mold, vermin, and water leaks, said Alex Schwartz, a housing expert at the New School in New York City. And the trauma of evictions, foreclosures, and homelessness can undermine physical and mental well-being, Schwartz said.

For five years, Nancy Painter lived in an apartment in Greenville, South Carolina, that had mold and cracks in the walls, ceiling, and floor. Sometimes, Painter said, she carried a can of bug killer in both hands to fend off roaches.

An autoimmune disease makes her extremely susceptible to colds and other respiratory illnesses, and arthritis causes her crippling pain. But she stayed in the apartment until last year because the rent was $325 a month. Painter moved out only after the landlord made plans to renovate the unit and raise the rent.

Painter, 64, now lives on about $1,100 in Social Security disability benefits. Her poor health left her unable to keep working in a fast-food job. She pays more than 70% of her income for a room in a house she shares with other adults who can’t find affordable housing.

Such renters should put no more than 30% of their income toward housing so they have enough left over for other basic needs, according to federal government formulas. “My options are so slim,” Painter said. “All I want is a small place where I can have a garden.”

In August, Louana Joseph's son, M.J., developed an upper respiratory infection that his mother suspects was caused by mold that was spreading in their apartment.

The problems are especially acute among Black people and other groups that have been denied good jobs, mortgages, and opportunities long beyond the Jim Crow era, said Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of population health and health equity at Virginia Commonwealth University. Life expectancy can vary by 15 to 20 years between different neighborhoods in the same city, he said.

Federal lawmakers routinely fail to prioritize the nearly 50-year-old housing voucher program, said Kirk McClure, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the University of Kansas. The U.S. offers less help with housing than do other rich countries, like the United Kingdom and Australia, where voucher programs allow everyone who meets income requirements to get help, McClure said.

“In the wealthiest society in the world, we could give every poor person a voucher,” McClure said. “This doesn’t require anything magical.”

Officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the voucher program, did not respond when asked whether the administration planned to push for more housing vouchers.

Joseph’s prospects of finding another home remain dim as rents skyrocket.

The fair-market rent — which is determined annually by the federal government based on a rental home’s size, type, and location — for a two-bedroom home in the U.S. reached $1,194 a month, on average, in 2019, according to a 2020 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. A family of four living on poverty-level income could afford $644 a month, the report said. In the city of Atlanta, the median rent for apartments of all sizes is $2,200, up nearly 30% since January 2021, according to the real estate website Zillow.

A lack of child care has kept Joseph from pursuing full-time jobs. But she can’t qualify for one state child care assistance program since she doesn’t have full-time employment, and another state program she sought out won’t have openings until next year.

She sued the Seven Courts Apartments’ owner in small claims court in June for $5,219 to compensate her for the ruined belongings and rent she has already paid. A settlement could allow her to move into a new home.

“I am stuck because I have nowhere else to go,” Joseph said.

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