Elon Musk often embarks on projects that garner a reputation for innovation, but the latest project from the Tesla, SpaceX and X Corp. CEO hearkens back to the 19th century.
Musk, who also owns Boring Co., plans to build a company town in Bastrop County, just outside of Austin, Texas, and envisions a “utopia along the Colorado River” where his companies’ employees can live, according to the Wall Street Journal. The proposed city — dubbed Snailbrook — is adjacent to Boring Co. and SpaceX facilities now under construction.
Some Bastrop residents have already spoken out against a state permit that would allow the Boring Co. to dump up to 140,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day into Texas’ Colorado River.
City planning experts also have doubts about the proposed company town, including concerns about a lack of transparency and the town’s potential effects on the environment, residents and local government.
“When I hear the word ‘company town,’ I'm always a little bit suspicious because historically, they were very controlled towns and very top-down institutions,” said Ángela Vergara, professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles. She added that company towns usually struggle with human rights and democracy.
The structure of a company town
Company towns have a long history in the U.S. Beginning in the late 19th century, they were a way for employers to provide housing to their workforce and exert control, said Vergara, who studies company towns in the Americas.
“Many times, the idea of company towns comes back [into fashion] because they've built on that dream of creating this perfect community,” she said. But this leaves a lot of questions unanswered: What happens to people's housing rights if they lose their jobs? Who has the right to live in a company town?
In Snailbrook, changing jobs could mean losing your home. According to an advertisement for Boring Co. employees that was cited by The Wall Street Journal, a Snailbrook resident would have to vacate their home within 30 days if they leave or get fired.
Political activities are another question. Vergara said a company town needs to be open to labor unions and different forms of political expression. That could spell trouble for Musk down the line, as the National Labor Relations Board found he violated federal labor law in 2018 by threatening employees over unionization, a decision upheld on appeal.
Meanwhile, affordable housing is hard to find in central Texas. Although rents have fallen from their summer 2022 highs, the average rent for the region was $1,683 in December, still above pre-pandemic levels, according to Capital Markets Research data cited in The Real Deal. The median rent in Bastrop, the seat of Bastrop County, is about $2,200. Last year, Boring employees could apply for a Snailbrook home with rent starting at about $800 per month, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Still, providing housing can be a mechanism for exercising control, said Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.
“On some deeper level, it's a desire for control that billionaires want to create the world in an image that they like,” he said. They “want to be able to provide a benefit to their employees, but also have a measure of control that their employees would be proximate and able to work as much as needed.”
Why does Musk need a company town?
A company town makes more sense when a place of production is isolated and has no nearby infrastructure, said Cecilia Giusti, associate professor in Texas A&M University’s landscape architecture and urban planning department.
But Snailbrook is less than 10 miles from Bastrop, a city of nearly 10,000 people, and about 30 miles from Austin.
“I don't think there's a need to create a company town at all,” Giusti said. “It's just suspicious to me. Why do you need to have this kind of environment [where] you just have your people there?”
It also could adversely affect local government since building a new city means tax money will go to Bastrop County but not the nearby city of Bastrop.
Powerful companies can also use their influence to steer local government policy in their favor, a risk with Musk’s town, Theodos said. For example, Orlando isn’t a company town, but Disney has wielded considerable development authority there.
“That's part of the appeal,” he said. Bastrop County declined an interview request. As of April 20, nothing about Snailbrook has been filed with the county.
Giusti had concerns about Musk and his companies providing little to no information to the public.
“I don't like the idea that the whole process is so secret. When you go to a place, you need to give the people support. You go with good spirit and talk to the people,” she said. “In this case, it's the opposite. So why the reluctancy of making this open? Something is not transparent, and that's the opposite of a good practice.”