Already 101 cities have expressed interest in Amazon’s second headquarters, HQ2. Take my advice, let them fight over it. I’ve witnessed Amazon’s impacts firsthand living in Seattle since the company’s formation.
Certainly, there’s appeal in participating in the next phase of a $474 billion technology company with 350,000 employees, but Amazon will change your city in ways you haven’t considered. Let me share Seattle’s experience because Amazon promises HQ2 will be a “full equal.”
I arrived in Seattle as a college graduate to work at Microsoft in 1991. Seattle was a beautiful city. It was easy to get around and it offered a good quality of life. The grunge music scene was exploding and Singles and Sleepless in Seattle were about to hit theaters. The city had a thriving gay community and Dan Savage had just launched his sex advice column. Native born Washingtonians were uneasy with Microsoft’s growth, but the company grew in the suburbs and distributed its impacts gradually in tolerable doses around the region.
In 1994, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon here. For a long time, the company evolved beside us, eventually becoming an impressive beacon of the promise of the Internet economy. But, beginning in 2009, Amazon’s growth accelerated and its market value multiplied nearly 20x. It began developing a cast-off area in the geographical center of the city called South Lake Union. It was a thoughtful move, concentrating the company’s footprint and making it easier for its employees to live near work. But it was in the middle of everything and Seattle just wasn’t prepared.
Soon, our landscape filled with construction cranes and remains so. Buildings emerged so frequently, if you went away for a week, you’d feel disoriented. In many areas, the Space Needle disappeared from view as well as sights of 14,411’ Mt. Rainier.
The company grew from approximately 5,200 Seattle employees in 2010 to more than 40,000 and the city’s population grew by 90,000. Average rents increased by $1,000 monthly to $2,200 and median home prices more than doubled to $730,000.
Low income people were driven out of their apartments around the city as developers tore them down to build luxury apartments. Weak regulations allowed both Amazon and developers to avoid responsibility for their impacts on people’s lives and our community.
Unsheltered homeless in surrounding King County more than doubled to 5,485. Surveys indicate that 70 percent were Seattle residents when they lost their homes, newly homeless.
For those fortunate to own property, they’ve become rich in paper assets but pay increasingly high property taxes. I pay more than $9,000 annually. Many residents are selling their homes and moving away, and many others know they may have to.
While the impacts of Amazon’s growth affects everyone, it’s wealth hasn’t. An analysis of 2014 IRS data revealed 51 percent of residents earn less than $50,000. One quarter earn less than $25,000.
This half has had to move further away from the city to afford rent or to buy homes turning more of them into commuters. Seattle now has the fourth worst traffic in the country. Morning drive times from Everett south to Seattle, a common benchmark, have increased from 35 minutes up to two hours. Even our circus had to relocate to the suburbs, ironically close to Microsoft.
Public transportation remains very poor here. Buses are packed and frequently pass by crowds waiting at stops. Driving anywhere in the city is slow and stressful and drivers spend 58 hours annually searching for parking.
Diversity in the city has slightly improved but we remain the fifth whitest big city and the whitest county nationally. Amazon refuses to reveal the diversity or gender of its Seattle workforce but area technology companies typically hire over 80 percent male. In Washington State, there are now 76,755 more men than women in the 18 to 54 age range. Dating’s become competitively difficult for straight men, but women also complain about dating Amazon employees with poor social skills.
As money, opportunity and people flood into the city so has crime. Rape has more than doubled since 2010. The police organize regular prostitution busts of more than a hundred johns including many technology workers. Shootings occur nearly every day.
The higher cost of housing on Capitol Hill, formerly a gay community stronghold, has driven many away and there’s been an outbreak of hate crimes.
Don’t expect Amazon to pay its fair share of the cost of dealing with these impacts. It’s notoriously anti-tax, once threatening to close a warehouse in Texas to avoid paying a $269 million tax bill. By setting North American cities against each other to bid for HQ2, the company’s gaming us to get the best economic deal possible.
Largely due to Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing’s influence here, Washington State continues to have the most regressive tax system in America. Lower income people pay the highest percentage of their income in taxes. Bezos doesn’t even regularly vote because he doesn’t have to.
Of course, any elected official hoping Amazon will choose their city should read the New York Times’ report on the company’s harmful treatment of employees as well as its response. Instead of challenging the report’s substance, Amazon chose to attack the employees who spoke up.
Another reason Amazon’s planning to expand outside Seattle is because it can’t retain most of its employees more than a year or two and it’s likely become harder to recruit people to live in Seattle. A lot of people don’t like living here anymore and Seattle’s not the special place it once was.
Encouragingly, Bezos has finally begun to be more active philanthropically, hosting a homeless shelter in one of Amazon’s buildings, giving $35 million to local cancer research, $10 million to our university’s computer science program and even tweeting for ideas. It’s a start, but I’d rather Amazon pay a higher share of taxes here so our elected government can decide where the money goes.
Many of my friends have left Seattle and I’ve spent this year exploring other cities to move to. I breathed an exhausted sigh of relief when I heard the news about HQ2, stunned that perhaps this unending growth will slow. I’m newly hopeful that perhaps Amazon’s shift might allow us to recover some of what we’ve lost and preserve what’s left.
In trying to capture a taste of Seattle’s “prosperity” for your community you’re more likely to wreck its quality of life. Let Amazon HQ2 go (just not to Seattle).
Besides, Amazon will likely choose Toronto because it offers the company an international buffer from taxation and political change in the United States and more favorable access to immigrant workers. If Jeff Bezos cares about America, he should instead choose Detroit, Toronto’s southwestern neighbor, a town destroyed by the boom bust cycle of the automobile industry. Amazon can undo for Detroit what it’s begun in Seattle.
Visit KnowHQ2.com for essential facts and sources from this story.