Amazon is donating millions to address homelessness in Northern Virginia, where its new headquarters has already driven up the cost of housing.
The mega-retailer will give $3 million to the Arlington Community Foundation in Virginia to “increase access to affordable housing for low-income families and veterans,” and $5 million to the nonprofit developer Plymouth Housing in Seattle to provide permanent housing to people who are experiencing homeless, Amazon AMZN, -0.03% said this week.
“Since 2000, Arlington County has lost nearly 90% of its market affordable housing stock,” said Jennifer Owens, president and CEO of Arlington County Community Foundation, in a statement provided by Amazon. “Amazon’s donation is a significant investment in our community and will support critical issues like housing affordability that are important to Northern Virginians.”
‘The shortage of affordable housing isn’t limited to communities that Amazon enters: it is a national problem and one that the federal government needs to get serious about.’
Amazon’s announcement of new headquarters in Virginia and New York — which the company later scrapped — sparked fears that it would drive up residential rents and lead to an increase in homelessness. One economist predicted HQ2 would push 14 people a year into homelessness in the Northern Virginia area. (In response to that analysis, Amazon noted that it’s donated more than $40 million to homeless causes in its home city of Seattle.)
Amazon says it will grow gradually in Virginia
But an Amazon spokeswoman said the company didn’t make this week’s donations because of concerns about HQ2 potentially worsening homelessness. “Access to housing is a concern in communities throughout the U.S., including Arlington,” said Amazon spokeswoman Stacey Keller. “One of the things that drew us to this location was the plans the county and the Commonwealth have in place to address this issue. We plan to hire people who live here so the impact on the region will be minimal.”
Amazon will grow gradually in Northern Virginia, she said, and will hire just 400 workers in 2019. The company will share its growth plans with local officials so they can plan accordingly, Keller said. Approximately 30% of HQ2’s workforce is expected to live outside of Virginia, a report by the Stephen S. Fuller Institute found, Keller added.
Home prices are up, inventory is down
Since Amazon announced plans to build HQ2 in Northern Virginia, the median home price in Arlington has soared 17.3% to $750,000 in April, up from $640,000 in November 2018, when HQ2 was announced, according to Realtor.com. The national median list price increased 5.5%, or $17,000, over the same time frame. Meanwhile, Arlington’s home inventory dropped 48.2% over that period, Realtor.com found. (Realtor.com is operated by News Corp NWSA, +0.34% subsidiary Move Inc., and MarketWatch is a unit of Dow Jones, which is also a subsidiary of News Corp.)
“Amazon coming to town is a great thing for the local jobs market and that’s reflected in the housing market,” Realtor.com chief economist Danielle Hale told MarketWatch. “That’s a great thing for people who own their homes. It can present some challenges for people who don’t own homes yet. Renters are likely to see increases.”
But Amazon’s jobs will be relatively high-paying — with an average salary of over $150,000, the company says — and that could put pressure on other local employers to raise their wages, Hale said. The HQ2 in Virginia is expected to bring 25,000 jobs by the year 2030.
In announcing the $8 million in donations, Amazon also said it will match charitable contributions by its employees to 20 specific groups addressing homelessness. The company will match donations one-to-one, up to a total of $5 million, until September 30. Amazon does not usually match its employees’ charitable contributions, a spokeswoman said.
Philanthropy is under scrutiny
Amazon’s $8 million in donations to address homelessness also comes a year after the company successfully fought a Seattle tax on big companies that was supposed to generate nearly $50 million for homeless services and affordable housing. Microsoft MSFT, +0.10% also announced a $5 million donation this week to Seattle’s Plymouth Housing. The contributions are part of $48.8 million in funding from Amazon, Microsoft and individuals including Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer that will help build eight buildings for chronically homeless people, the Seattle Times reported.
Amazon’s charitable donations come amid mounting criticism about philanthropy by tech companies and their leaders. Some observers argue that companies like Amazon have partly fueled the very inequality they aim to solve with their charitable donations, and that they would do more good by paying their workers higher wages. Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour last year and CEO Jeff Bezos urged other companies to follow his lead.
Bezos’s personal philanthropic initiative, the Day One Fund, set aside $2 billion in 2018 to fight homelessness and improve preschool education in the U.S. It’s handed out $97.5 million in grants so far to groups that help homeless families.
Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, called Amazon’s $8 million donation “needed and appropriate” and added, “hopefully such investments will continue. She added, “It must be said, though, that the shortage of affordable housing isn’t limited to communities that Amazon enters: it is a national problem and one that the federal government needs to get serious about.”