Amazon to Seattle: The Housing Crisis Is Not Our Problem

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

The Amazon campus in Seattle

The cities on Amazon’s HQ2 shortlist should keep their eyes on Seattle in the coming days for a preview of the havoc the company is willing to wreak on its neighbors.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council is set to vote on an employee-hour tax (EHT). The measure would raise $75 million a year to help the city battle its ever-deepening housing and homelessness crisis. The EHT would require businesses grossing $20 million year or more in Seattle to pay 26 cents for every Seattle employee, per hour. Yet Amazon, a nearly $6 billion behemoth of a corporation is pulling out the stops to keep this this bill from passing.

Seattle declared a homelessness state of emergency in 2015, but unchecked real estate speculation keeps pushing rents up, and pushing people, especially people of color, out. Between 2015 and 2017, the rate of homelessness in the city grew by 44 percent. African Americans and Native Americans have the highest rates of homelessness in the city. Six percent of Seattle residents are black, but one-third of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle are black. Native Americans are 1 percent of Seattle’s population, but comprise 6 percent of unhoused people. 

Rather than devising a long-term solution, the city has relied on policing homeless people, using “sweeps” to move them out of public areas of the city. Despite Amazon’s growth and success (arguably supported by Washington state which has no income or capital gains tax) and even though the company is reportedly asking potential HQ2 cities how they will prevent the displacement of long-time residents, the company officials have failed to make constructive contributions to the debate over the increasing numbers of Seattleites who cannot afford safe and stable homes.

On May 2, in response to the EHT proposal, Amazon announced it would halt construction on a new tower in the city, and is considering moving 7,000 jobs outside the city, presumably to avoid paying the tax if it passes. This is not Amazon’s first attempt to avoid paying their fair share—not by a long shot—but it is a particularly egregious one to use the city that has helped fuel its astonishing growth. 

The EHT aims to address the housing crisis that Amazon and other technology firms have helped to create in Seattle. The company’s opposition to this housing funding surfaced at the same time that its CEO, Jeff Bezos, said that the only way he can imagine spending his riches is in space exploration.

In addition to the contributing to the housing crisis, Amazon’s hiring practices may deepen racial divides in the city’s workforce. While Amazon has become a top employer in Seattle, most of its employees do not have high-paid tech jobs. According to the company’s 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity report, less than 4 percent of people in managerial or professional jobs at the company are black, while 30 percent of workers in low-wage jobs at the company are black.

Frankly, the EHT would have only a modest impact on Amazon. We estimate that Amazon would pay about $24 million per year under the EHT for the next two years—or about one hundredth of 1 percent of its 2017 revenues of nearly $178 billion. After two years, the EHT would be replaced with a progressive payroll tax and Amazon’s bill would go up two hundredths of one percent of 2017 revenues.

Amazon’s move is more than an effort to save some money—it’s an indication of the company’s desire to control local public policy, even if that causes communities of color to bear more of the costs so Bezos and others can accumulate more of the wealth. 

Each of the cities shortlisted for Amazon’s new headquarters have communities of color who have great cause for concern if Amazon comes to town. This is why community organizations around the country have come together to issue our own “wishlist” for HQ2 and demand that Amazon negotiate with local communities about HQ2’s impacts.

This week, Amazon’s Web Services CEO Andy Jassy called taxing corporations to offset the effects of homelessness “super dangerous.” But Amazon represents a real risk to communities if it is allowed to export its brand of displacement of long-time residents and tax avoidance to another region. 

It’s time for Amazon to stop passing the buck. If Amazon isn't willing to do its part to address community problems like homelessness in Seattle, why should the residents in next corporate headquarters city expect them to be good neighbors? Municipal leaders in the 20 finalist cities should be skeptical of Amazon’s professed concerns about affordable housing and demand that the mega-corporation come to the table and commit to solutions that work for all people.

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