[dropcap2]E[/dropcap2]arly in July, Amazon PR told the Associated Press (AP) that it had “given the city [of Seattle] tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing” for a story that appeared on more than 300 news sites including The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News, The San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle PI, Salon.com, The Times of India, The London Free Press and many more. This just didn’t seem accurate.
In addition to the AP story, Amazon’s been under a lot of public scrutiny lately for the harms its rapid growth is causing. This past weekend, my story on how Seattle’s fast growing technology sector is ruining the city went viral as did my earlier essay, ‘Amageddon’: How Amazon’s culture is taking a toll on Seattle’s future. Since I’d never heard of Amazon donating to the affordable housing effort, I decided to look into their statement more closely.
Protests at Amazon
Not only were there recent protests outside the company’s headquarters for its negative impacts on affordable housing but in 2012, The Seattle Times exposed Amazon as a “virtual no-show in hometown philanthropy.” A friend of mine working in this space told me, “No one in the affordable housing world sees [Amazon] as anything other than a driver of increased costs.” Many people have been pushed out of their apartments by rising rent and homelessness is up by 21 percent since 2014.
It’s surprising the company made a statement for the AP’s story at all as it’s rare that Amazon PR responds to journalists. Paul Constant wrote it’s famous for this, once saying he “suspect[s] that the Amazon PR phone line is connected to an answering machine in an abandoned warehouse in Belize.” Another time, he wrote, “Amazon has never, not once, replied to any of my queries. Sometimes late at night, struck by a sudden insomnia, I have to fight the urge to call the hotline and sing Bryan Adams ballads to the answering machine, just so it knows somebody cares.”
The only time I remember hearing from Amazon’s PR department, they lied to me.
In 2013, I reported to Slashdot, a popular technology news site, that Amazon had launched and then canceled a $100,000 Civic Apps contest, an action that may have been illegal in many states. Amazon’s spokesman told me they, “…accidentally pushed [the contest] early, but please stay tuned for more information on this program later this year.” The contest was never relaunched nor did I ever hear another mention of it.
How Much Amazon Did Pay Seattle for Affordable Housing
According to the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing, Amazon has paid fees of $18.2 million for the rights to build an additional 970,778 gross square footage in two new office towers it’s building. See Seattle Incentive Zoning Report (Seattle City Government).
This is not a donation and it’s not “tens of millions” of dollars. To make that claim, the company should have at least paid more than $20 million but really more than $30 million. It also should not give the impression of given funds or a donation for fees which purchased it the rights to exceed standard zoning rules.
My guess is that Amazon thought it’s okay to also bundle in fees paid by its landlord Vulcan Real Estate between 2009 and 2011. Vulcan reports (pdf) it paid fees of $6.5 million for additional heights in projects that Amazon would later lease. However, Amazon didn’t pay these fees nor did Vulcan make these as donations.
Amazon also told the AP, “55 percent of its workers bus, bike or walk to work” and that it “…paid for a new street car and has contributed to nearly 100 charitable organizations.”
While it’s possible Amazon’s estimate of its non-driving commuters is accurate, a portion of the remaining employees take much of the Car2Go inventory from surrounding neighborhoods every morning at rush hour to the company’s South Lake Union headquarters. You can see what the Car2Go app looks like there in the mornings (at right).
And, while the company did purchase a street car for the neighborhood, it did not purchase the entire $53 million system. Amazon only purchased a fourth car making a total commitment of $5.5 million.
Finally, as for making donations to 100 charitable organizations, many of you probably have as well. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994, 21 years ago. That would be donations to less than five charities per year. I’ve given to more charities than that already in 2015 and it’s likely you have too. This claim is not very meaningful. Amazon’s been called out repeatedly for its lack of philanthropy within the city as well as the arts. In the future, it would be great to see the company publish a report of a coordinated series of large donations made to improve the quality of life, diversity and transit in our city.
While the AP reported that Amazon’s spokesman Ty Rogers told them, “We made a decision to invest in our hometown,” they sort of lied, definitely misled and exaggerated their use of math and grammar. And now readers around the world from New Zealand to China to London to San Francisco believe the company actively contributes to Seattle’s affordable housing. It’s just not the case. Amazon is a big part of many of Seattle’s current problems.
- How Our Success is Ruining Seattle (Jeff Reifman)
- Company Town? In Seattle, Some Fret Over Amazon’s Growth (AP)
- Seattle Incentive Zoning Report (Seattle City Government)
- Seattle Incentive Zoning Rules (Seattle City Government)
- Amazon annual meeting picketed by affordable housing and workers’ rights advocates (GeekWire)
- Vulcan to Pay $6.5 Million in Affordable Housing Fees (PSBJ via Vulcan website)
- Amazon a Virtual No-Show in Hometown Philanthropy (Seattle Times)
- ‘Amageddon’: How Amazon’s culture is taking a toll on Seattle’s future (GeekWire)
- Amazon plan adds more streetcar trips (Seattle Times)
- A Midget Among Giants Why Doesn’t Amazon.com Support Seattle Arts? (The Stranger)