As cities around the U.S. scramble to figure out how to address the housing affordability crisis, one of them has now leaned on the benevolence of what some consider the least benevolent of them all.
Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, declared Seattle (specifically its South Lake Union district) its new home several years ago, and began moving employees in last year. The corporation’s planned campus, to consist of three towers and at least 20 other office buildings, will bring more than 20,000 jobs to Seattle. Amazon’s presence has already propelled smaller tech startups (and big tech company, Google) to set up shop, and the buying and building frenzy that continues to ensue caused the mayor to declare a “housing state of emergency” last year in what is now the country's 4th-fastest growing city.
Amazon's move to this once-desolate neighborhood in Seattle has been the catalyst for the largest number of residential permit applications since 1984, according to The New York Times, and its masses of employees have attracted food trucks and other small business activity in and around the district.
Ironically, Seattle’s attractiveness to the tech sector is in part due to the fact that housing in the Bay Area—the nation’s largest tech hub—has become too pricey, and more and more people in the field are fleeing to what they consider more affordable housing in Seattle.
The relativity of “affordable” comes into play, as the city was not overflowing with housing to begin with, and now the influx of people with deeper pockets has caused many low- to moderate-income city residents to feel the pressure of rising rents, and the city to face a surging homeless population. A January 2016 homeless count in Seattle and Kings counties reported 4,505 individuals living unsheltered, including about 400 families.
The mayor’s state of emergency declaration coupled with growing outrage by housing activists spurred Amazon to take action earlier this year. In April, the company announced that it would be working in partnership with a local nonprofit to create a 200-bed homeless shelter out of a former Travelodge that is part of its planned campus. The building has been refitted to include a children’s center, and Amazon created one of its famous “wish lists” so that the public could purchase and donate furnishings and supplies for residents of the shelter.
Praised by the mayor and homeless advocates, the shelter project has a shelf life of one year, which is when the building will be demolished to clear the way for more office buildings. Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities has said that another building nearby may be used when the clock runs down, but the company couldn’t make any promises.
Amazon has been criticized for overwork and intimidation of its tech and corporate staff, maintaining unsafe work environments for warehouse employees, ruthless negotiations to waive sales tax collection in the cities it builds warehouses in, and lack of corporate philanthropy.
Amazon is like Godzilla, and the merest of mortals among us—low-income earners, the homeless, and nearly-homeless—are tossed around as it barrels through, leaving thousands displaced in its wake. Its clear that this is partly the case in Seattle, but its also clear that its not really Amazon’s fault—it is a business, after all. Protection of a city's residents, especially its most vulnerable, is the job of government, and it appears as if the alarm was sounded a couple of years too late.
To be a behemoth of a company, help create a problem (or at the very least exacerbate it), and not address it, is simply bad PR. Granted, Amazon seems to be going above and beyond what most other companies might do, but they are in a class by itself, size-wise, so this pop-up homeless shelter may literally be the least it can do.
Photo credit: Godzilla! by Dr Zito, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)
I think what Amazon did in Seattle was a start in the right direction. But, what happens next? What services are the residents given in order to make them self sufficient when this housing structure is no longer a viable option? It is not uncommon for temporary housing agencies to limit the amount of time its residents remain within the program so I don’t think that is the most pressing issue. Long-range planning is where I do think the City needs to focus (and I hope this is underway).