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Affordable Housing

Amazon donates $3 million to Arlington foundation to support affordable housing

Amazon will donate $3 million to the Arlington Community Foundation to support affordable housing and fight homelessness, and make a $5 million contribution to a similar charity in Seattle, the company announced Tuesday.

Amazon also will match its employees’ contributions to selected local charities that aid housing in the two communities through Sept. 30, up to $5 million.

The initiative addresses concerns in both communities that the company’s robust creation of high-paying jobs — planned in Arlington and well underway in Seattle — drives up housing prices and displaces established residents.

Critics and supporters alike have called on Amazon to do more for local housing. “I want to see Amazon have some skin in the game on affordable housing,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Monday.

The donation in Arlington is too small to cover the full cost of more than a handful of new housing units, which cost about $350,000 apiece, according to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. The need for new affordable units in the Virginia suburbs runs in the tens of thousands, according to local governments and housing analysts.

Instead, Amazon’s donation will create a fund that can both subsidize some costs of new affordable housing — still estimated at only a couple of dozen units — plus pay for services for homeless people or others who can’t afford their rent.

“Some of it may be for bricks and mortar, and some of it may be for support services,” said Jennifer Owens, president and chief executive of the Arlington Community Foundation. “The best uses of that $3 million have yet to be determined.”

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She called the donation “generous” and “a significant investment in our community,” which will raise the total charitable funds managed by the foundation to $24 million from $21 million.

Since Amazon announced in November that it was building a second headquarters facility in Crystal City, one of the biggest worries has been about the impact on housing costs. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The online retailer plans to hire at least 25,000 employees over the next 10 to 12 years with an average annual salary of at least $150,000. The first of 400 to be hired this year began work this month.

Middle- and lower-income residents in neighborhoods near Crystal City fear the Amazon hires will drive up rents and housing prices, and force them to move elsewhere.

“Homelessness and affordable housing are real concerns in Seattle and the Washington, D.C., region,” Amazon Senior Vice President Jay Carney said. “As neighbors in both, we made these donations to [Seattle’s] Plymouth Housing and the Arlington Community Foundation because of their work and progress on housing stability and helping families improve their quality of life.”

Carney said in a May interview with The Washington Post that the company would be able to plan better for its growth in Arlington than in Seattle, and thus would not aggravate housing problems as much. He did not provide details and said it is primarily the government’s responsibility to ensure there is an adequate supply of affordable housing.

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Owens said Arlington was suffering from a serious housing shortage well before Amazon arrived. The county has lost nearly 90 percent of its market affordable housing over the past 20 years.

She praised Amazon for what she said was a cooperative approach, in which the company sought to work with the foundation to find how to put the money to best use.

“What I’m excited about is that Amazon has come at this as a true partner rather than a prescriber,” she said.

Owens described the financial arithmetic of building affordable housing to illustrate how costly it would be to have a major impact via construction subsidies.

Typically, affordable housing in Arlington is built for households with incomes of about $70,000 a year, she said. To lower the cost so the housing is affordable for households with incomes of about $35,000 a year, a subsidy of $115,000 per unit is needed, Owens said.

So, if the entire $3 million donation from Amazon were used to lower the cost of housing in that way, it would benefit 26 households.

Amazon’s profit in 2018 was $11.2 billion, on which it paid no federal income tax. Asked whether the company’s $3 million donation was enough given the need for affordable housing in Arlington, Owens said, “I don’t think it would be fair to say that anybody in our community is doing enough.”

Source: Washington Post

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