The standoff last week between Amazon and the City of Seattle should leave the 20 cities vying for Amazon’s second headquarters with no illusions about what kind of civic partner Amazon will be. Seattle is proposing to dedicate an additional $75 million per year towards affordable housing, paid for by a payroll tax on large businesses. In a warning shot to Seattle and Amazon’s many suitors, Amazon halted planning for its latest office tower pending city council’s vote on the plan.

As in other technology hubs, Seattle’s twin crises of declining housing affordability and rising homelessness are pervasive in daily life. Over the last five years, the number of homes affordable to low-income families has declined by almost half, leaving 23,000 low-income Seattle households in the precarious position of paying over half their income towards rent.

Meanwhile, Amazon has grown to employ over 45,000 people in Seattle, mostly high-earners that can out-bid their neighbors for housing. Washington State’s regressive tax system, with no income or capital gains tax on the wealthy, has failed to harness the benefits of this boom for broader public good. If passed, the payroll tax could be transformative, allowing Seattle to double its yearly production of supportive, deeply affordable housing.

The tax would cost Amazon $20 million per year. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos just last week discussed putting $1 billion a year—50 times the yearly cost of the City’s proposed tax—into private space exploration. He couldn’t see any other good use for his massive fortune, saying, “the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.” Equitable development and the fate of 4,000 Seattleites currently living on the streets seem not to have made the cut.

At Seattle Tech 4 Housing, our membership includes many Amazon employees, and they’re proud of the company and their work. We’re not anti-business or anti-Amazon. But we believe that the tech industry has a responsibility to help mitigate the stress it has put on our inadequate housing supply.

Ultimately, the housing crisis needs to be addressed with policy reform. Seattle must change its outdated land use rules that virtually guarantee a housing shortage and its tax laws that leave the poor disproportionately tax burdened and affordable housing underfunded. Amazon is throwing its weight against these reforms. Before cities welcome Amazon with open arms, Amazon should show in its own hometown that its part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Contact information for Seattle City Councilmembers is below:

Lisa Herbold, District 1
206-684-8803 lisa.herbold@seattle.gov
Bruce Harrell, District 2
206-684-8804 bruce.harrell@seattle.gov
Kshama Sawant, District 3
206-684-8016 kshama.sawant@seattle.gov
Rob Johnson, District 4
206-684-8808 rob.johnson@seattle.gov
Debra Juarez, District 5
206-684-8805 debra.juarez@seattle.gov
Sally Bagshaw, District 7
206-684-8801 sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov
Mike O’Brien, District 6
206-884-8800 mike.obrien@seattle.gov
Teresa Mosqueda, Position 8
206-684-8806 teresa.mosqueda@seattle.gov
Lorena Gonzalez, Position 9
206-684-8802 lorena.gonzalez@seattle.gov

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Ethan is the founder and lead organizer for Seattle Tech 4 Housing, a grassroots education and advocacy group fighting for progressive housing reform. Seattle Tech 4 Housing was founded on the principals that the tech boom can and should benefit every Seattle resident; that abundant and affordable housing is the foundation of an equitable city; and that the tech community in particular has a responsibility to fight for solutions. Ethan is also the founder of Seattle in Progress, a real estate tech consultancy and website for tracking construction in Seattle.

17 COMMENTS

  1. “Amazon is throwing its weight against these reforms.”

    How exactly is Amazon opposing land use reforms? I’m not familiar with that.

    Otherwise, it seems rational to me that Amazon is declining to subsidize the natural and inevitable adverse externalities of Seattle making it illegal to build apartments on the majority of its land.

  2. It’s not Amazon’s job to fix the city’s poor zoning and land use policies. That’s the politicians job.

    Zones for single family housing in the majority of the city and that’s Amazon’s fault? My goodness, these arguments shed a sad light on our understanding of the major issues.

  3. So we are just going to let Seattle continue to tax businesses without a fiscal plan in place? Amazon is right on the head tax, along with Starbucks, Google, Safeway/QFC, Zillow and many other businesses. The city already has a B&O tax in place and we are in an economic boom. The city has not proven they can be trusted with more money on homelessness.

  4. Twenty four hours ago I wasn’t ready to go all Admiral Ackbar, but this looks increasingly like more like another brick in the wall toward becoming the Bay Area. (I’d be less worried if the tax was positioned straight up as the best of bad options to raise desperately needed money temporarily, but…it’s not.)* 🙁

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c734b711d727dcd8226a4dcbede5817df46ce6369d99b4ce42cbd51da81b7e16.jpg

    *NB I work at Google, opinions are my own.

    • Yeah I’m worried this is a slippery slope too. A slippery slope toward Seattle investing enough money in affordable housing. Let’s get sliding!

      The Bay Area recipe is adding tons jobs and hardly any housing. This measure adds housing and at worst costs a few jobs.

      • “Investing enough money in affordable housing” = more money for the developers that have brought this problem on by the GMA and have given you the debacle of gentrification around ST.

      • If we define things that aren’t progressive as progressive we take a giant step toward becoming San Francisco.If folks just said it’s the least bad option so lets deal with it for awhile, that would be less worrisome. It isn’t a progessive tax.

        “at worst costs a few jobs”

        Seattle isalmost literally the single best place in the country for minimum wage workers ($15/hr min wage, secure scheduling, sick leave)…policy that eyes wide open costs any jobs here is morally appaling.

        • Every single one of those measures cost jobs according to their critics. Any time anything progressive is brought forward, that’s tends to be the criticism. Do we have evidence beyond an Amazon threat that a head tax would actually cost jobs?

          We can’t stop Amazon or any other corporation from slowing hiring as a means to send a political message. But isn’t pure economic forces at work (a fraction of a percent increase in labor cost didn’t erase Seattle’s competitive advantage for big business that chose to operate here) but pure political posturing to stop the council from getting too much in the habit of breaking from the chamber-of-commerce-line.

          You call this the best place in country for minimum wage workers, but, even with those hard-fought benefits, they can’t afford to live in Seattle giving skyrocketing housing costs and the high cost of living. So much work remains to be done.

          • “Any time anything progressive is brought forward, that’s tends to be the criticism.”

            The EHT isn’t progressive.

            “they can’t afford to live in Seattle giving skyrocketing housing costs and the high cost of living. So much work remains to be done.”

            YES! The scale of that work requires real progressive taxes + zoning changes. If take our eyes off of actually achieving that, we become San Francisco II. 🙁

  5. After wading through the comments on the Seattle Times articles, I thought I’d find the comments over here taking a different direction. Am I surprised! Tax and spend, tax and spend – throw the commie bums out, eh? Of course, more emphasis on the urbanist belief in the market fairies who will save us if we only upzone everything, but one simplistic excuse for doing nothing is about the same as another, I think you’d all get along pretty well!

  6. Amazon is, and will be, increasing employees outside Seattle and decreasing employees in Seattle. The impact of any proposed or actual payroll tax on these related trends is minimal. A more significant “tax-driven” reason for these Amazon employment trends is that it now must collect and remit sales taxes from purchasers in other states — something not part of its business model until recently. That’s one of the reasons it had so many employees in WA for so long — it knew the portion of its worldwide market here always would be tiny, and keeping its employees out of other states minimized where it used to have to collect and remit sales taxes.

  7. In what world do you PUNISH businesses for creating jobs? Oh yea, the one that our communist city clowncil wants for Seattle. Morons.

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