WASHINGTON — How will the world’s most valuable company reshape the nation’s capitol? A look at Seattle reveals the answer is a complicated one.
Amazon’s decision to locate half its new HQ2 in Arlington, Va. -- adding at least 25,000 high-paying jobs and more than $2 billion in investments -- will transform the look and feel of the region, according to nine Seattle residents who spoke with about the company’s effects on that city with WUSA 9.
Some of them warn the Amazon effect isn't always a good one.
"I would say for a lot of people, Amazon has not been good for Seattle," Seattle native and filmmaker Inye Wokoma said.
Wokoma said that while the surge in jobs, from 5,000 Seattle-based employees in 2010 to over 40,000 today, is a good thing for the economy, Amazon has, in the process, gobbled up property and space, leaving little affordable housing and driving up home prices and rent.
"Just about everybody that I've known and grown up with, including 90 plus percent of my family members, have had to leave the neighborhood," Wokoma said. "And I’m only here because I’m extremely stubborn, and I refuse to leave, and I'm constantly looking for ways to be able to stay."
Sharon Lee, who is executive director of Seattle’s Low-Income Housing Institute, said skyrocketing home prices have forced people further and further from the city and contributed to a rise in homelessness.
"For the people that we see that are in need of affordable housing, it has been a terrible, terrible experience," Lee said.
WUSA 9 investigations have uncovered a growing affordable housing crisis in Northern Virginia, even before HQ2 opens for business.
Danny Cendejas is so worried about it, he helped form a group called For Us Not Amazon that is now pushing local leaders to take back some of the tax breaks promised to Amazon to build affordable housing.
Cendejas said the $225 million Virginia has already set aside for that reason is not enough.
"How can we expect any guarantees that our families will be protected?" Cendejas said, "when we have the looming threat of a huge corporation like Amazon?"
Victor Haskins, director of Arlington Economic Development and one of the people who helped lure Amazon to Arlington, said it's unfair to compare the situation in Seattle to what might happen in the DC Metro area.
"But people say, 'Look at what happened in Seattle,'" Hoskins said. "I try and help them understand scale."
Hoskins said the Washington, D.C., area is about twice as big as Seattle in both population and work force, lessening the impact of the new Amazon employees.
He said if unexpected housing problems do arise, Arlington is ready to react.
"I don’t think the solutions will be simple," Hoskins said. "They never are."
Another problem without any easy answers is the traffic problem that has developed in Seattle in the last decade.
Many Seattle residents blame Amazon for that.
"Traffic is excruciating, "said Amy Douglas, a graphic designer who said she often must allow an hour and a half just to get across the city.
Seattle is consistently ranked among the top 10 worst cities to drive in alongside Washington, D.C.
A study done by Puget Sound Regional Council found traffic delays on Interstate 5, which is a main artery in Seattle, has increased by 177 percent from 2010 to 2017.
But Executive Director Josh Brown said he does not consider traffic, or the city’s affordable housing problems an Amazon effect.
"I think they’ve been a dartboard so to speak about folks pointing to and saying all the problems, all the challenges, everything negative is their fault," Brown said.
"I think that’s really simplifying the challenges in our region. We’ve always had congestion challenges. Amazon didn’t create it. The entire West Coast has dealt with affordability challenges. We've actually done a lot better than our peers in places like California."
Jon Scholes, downtown Seattle Association president and CEO, said Seattle’s congestion and housing issues resulted from a lack of planning by city leaders.
"But guess what? Amazon doesn’t control that," Scholes said. "The private sector doesn’t control that. Companies don’t control that."
Amazon also dismissed claims the company’s growth is to blame for Seattle’s problems.
"Everyone is totally entitled to think what they want to think about Amazon’s effect on Seattle," Amazon spokesperson Allison Flicker said.
"What I think is really important, and what I think is really impressive is the jobs and economic opportunity we've created in the city of Seattle," Flicker said.
Flicker said Amazon has invested $4 billion in development of its Seattle headquarters, expanding bike lanes and supporting Mary’s Place, a shelter for families that are homeless.
Small business owner Monty Holmes also thinks Amazon has been a benefit for Seattle.
"Well, it’s definitely put us on the map," Holmes said. "I think the city has definitely benefited from recognition of having Amazon headquarters."
Holmes said he has, too. The owner of a decades-old family-run Seattle trophy store called Athletic Awards Company, Holmes is a David to the Amazon Goliath. And no one, not even Holmes, expected his business to thrive like it has when Amazon moved in to his Seattle neighborhood, known as South Lake Union.
Holmes said his sales, property value and reputation have all flourished.
"That’s kind of why everybody loves us," Holmes said with a smile.
"They come by and say, 'Hey, we love that you’re here,'" he continued, getting choked up. "It makes you feel good. We’re hanging in here. We got a piece of the rock."
The question now is what Amazon delivers to Northern Virginia.