Amazon sought to tamp down fears about displacing residents around its new Northern Virginia headquarters with a pledge last year to create and preserve thousands of affordable housing units in the D.C. area’s notoriously tight market.
Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund is a voluntary endeavor, and many local officials have praised the tech giant for committing so much money to address a long-standing shortage of affordable housing. Others argue that Amazon can and should do more, in part because the company — which earned about $33.4 billion last year — stands to profit from interest on the loans it is volunteering. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
For now, though, Amazon’s efforts will likely do little to move the needle for the region’s lowest-income residents, many of whom are already stretching their paychecks to make rent every month. Just 6 percent of the units secured so far under Amazon’s fund have been set aside for the poorest renters — hardly enough to address fears that they will have to move out as the company’s new office buildings go up.
“These are the people who we don’t think about until we want the handles clean or the floors swept,” said J. Walter Tejada (D), a former Arlington County Board member. “We have to consider the consequences: Do we push low-income residents and blue-collar workers further out so they can clog our streets on the way back to job centers?”
Catherine Buell, the director of Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund, said the company’s $2 billion effort is designed to address a specific “market need”: increasing the housing supply for low-to-moderate-income workers, who make between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income — too much to qualify for most public benefits but not enough to afford skyrocketing housing prices.
“Even an Amazon cannot solve the entire affordable housing issue,” she said in an interview. “Amazon doesn’t own the affordable housing challenges, and governments are primarily responsible for managing the housing issues in their community. We’re here to be a partner.”
Yet, the company’s effort has so far committed few resources toward the lower end of its intended range. Of more than 4,100 units secured so far, just 215 will be set aside for residents who make 50 percent or less of the area median income. (That translates to an annual salary of up to $45,150 for an adult living alone, or up to $64,500 for a family of four.)
It’s those apartments — for home health aides, school bus drivers or construction workers — that are most needed and are most rapidly disappearing in Northern Virginia and beyond, the company’s critics say.
“Even though the Amazon investments are significant, the number of units we have lost and will continue to lose greatly outweighs the number Amazon contributes to preserving,” said Derek Hyra, an urban policy professor at American University and a Falls Church planning commissioner. “So basically, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
Affordable housing developers face a constant trade-off between the number of units they build or preserve and how low they can set rents. Some local lawmakers say it’s better for the money to focus on quantity because government assistance programs exist to bridge the gap.
But for Amazon’s dollars to be most effective, Hyra and others also say, the company must extend its targets even lower — to the lowest-income renters, including minimum-wage workers, who make 30 percent or less of the area median income.
“Amazon is not mitigating displacement for the most vulnerable people,” he said. “If they want to do the greatest good, they should be targeting where the greatest need is."
Struggling to stay
Ana Santos, 42, knows that need all too well. Since emigrating from Honduras and moving to Virginia nearly two decades ago, she and her family have rented a two-bedroom unit at the Park Vue apartments in Alexandria.
The building is close enough to Amazon’s new offices to see the cranes at work in the distance. In February, it was purchased by the nonprofit Alexandria Housing Development Corporation, thanks to a $51.4 million loan from Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund.
Santos’s neighbors are a close-knit group of mostly Latin American immigrants, who call their neighborhood “Chirilagua," after the town in El Salvador where much of the community can trace its roots. “I love that this is a place where everyone looks out for each other,” she said in Spanish.
Like her family, about 95 percent of neighborhood residents earn less than 40 percent of the area median income, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Tenants and Workers United, a community activist group.
As the building has changed ownership three times since 2011, rent has steadily increased. First it went up by $25 a month. Then $50. The most recent increase was $75, so that Santos said her family now pays $1,850, in addition to nearly $200 for utilities. Some of her neighbors can’t afford it and have been forced to leave, she said.
Given the terms of Amazon’s loan to AHDC, rents at Park Vue must be capped to remain affordable for people making 60 percent of the area median income. That will bring rents down an average of $58 per month, the developer said. Santos’s rent will be effectively frozen.
That won’t change the fact that the family is still barely scraping by.
Santos had to stop cleaning houses when her diabetes worsened, she said, so the family must rely on the income brought in by her husband, Antonio, a roofer, and 23-year-old son, also named Antonio — a little more than $40,000, depending on the year.
Under the new limits imposed by AHDC, they would spend about $22,000 annually on rent. Her family already relies on SNAP benefits to afford groceries, Santos said, and they applied in January to Alexandria for rental assistance. If prices remain this high, she fears she may have to leave the area for good.
The Amazon-backed AHDC acquisition “is not going to change a thing for us,” she said.
A longtime issue
The lack of enough affordable housing in the Washington region has long predated Amazon’s arrival. For at least two decades, the number of housing units in and around D.C. has not been able to keep up with the area’s booming population.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) sounded the alarm in a September 2019 report: Local governments needed to add at least 320,000 more housing units over the next decade, the council warned, or rents and mortgages would skyrocket.
A 2020 analysis of Arlington’s housing needs, prepared by George Mason University’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute, noted that there is already a stark shortage of units in the county for the lowest-income renters: For every five households making 50 percent or less of area median income, there were only about two units considered affordable to them. At higher income brackets, there was a surplus of units.
The same trend is true regionally: According to the Urban Institute, there were far more households in 2015 that needed or wanted to pay for housing units at the lowest income tiers than the supply of those actual housing units.
“Amazon was not going to cause a housing crisis,” said Katie Cristol (D), chair of the Arlington County Board, “because we already had an affordable housing crisis.”
Governments in both Arlington and Alexandria have poured hundreds of millions into subsidizing new affordable housing developments and tried to bridge the gap between income and rent through their own voucher programs.
When Amazon announced its plans to create 25,000 new jobs in the county, the shortage was severe enough that state lawmakers committed $75 million of state funds for affordable housing in Northern Virginia as part of the overall deal. The company separately gave $20 million to Arlington for its own housing funds, plus another $40 million in land to build more affordable units.
Advocates and residents nonetheless expressed deep fears that the corporate giant and its growing, highly paid workforce would displace the few low-income neighborhoods left nearby. Virginia’s deal with Amazon — as much as $750 million in direct subsidies to the company — rests on the condition that new hires in Arlington earn an average of $150,000 a year.
It was against that backdrop that Amazon announced its Housing Equity Fund in January 2021. The e-retailer poured $2 billion into its fund, promising to secure 20,000 units across the Seattle, Nashville and D.C. metros — all expensive urban areas where the company’s footprint is growing rapidly.
Buell said Amazon’s fund was largely meant to tap into the company’s access to low-interest loans and pass that along to developers, helping them build more affordable housing or buy privately owned affordable buildings and keep rents there low.
“We are filling a niche in the market, specifically for those low-to-moderate-income families,” she said. “We’ve been able to provide this affordability” in places like on top of a transit station where it doesn’t exist, a block away from HQ2, three miles from the Pentagon.”
Most recently, Amazon announced it had helped fund two new constructions near Metro stops on the Orange and Green/Yellow lines in Prince George’s County, part of a focus to build apartments near public transit. Both projects are designed to be affordable for renters making up to 80 percent of the area median income ($72,240 for an individual, or $103,200 for a family of four).
For lower-income renters like Santos, that would mean paying an additional $470 in rent every month. In other words, her family would have to spend more than two-thirds of its income to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
“Projects like that don’t help us at all,” Santos said. “It’s not a way to show they care about communities like ours, because no one will be able to afford that.”
There is broad debate among affordable housing advocates and economists over whether it is beneficial to create housing at moderate income levels that might relieve pressure on the poorest residents, or build directly for the poor.
With so many units targeted to renters making 60 or 80 percent of the area median income, Amazon’s fund has taken the former route. Cristol, the Arlington board chair, said the results were “transformational.”
Amazon-funded deals in Arlington have increased the county’s supply of affordable housing by 22 percent, preserving hundreds of units that will stay affordable for 99 years — decades longer than the norm in a state where rent control does not exist.
The money has also helped secure deals that county lawmakers say may not have happened otherwise. When the Barcroft Apartments were put up for sale last fall, many feared the massive complex would be snapped up by a for-profit developer that would end up creating luxury units and pushing out the current tenants, mostly working-class immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Instead, it was acquired by Jair Lynch Realty Partners, which used loans from Amazon and Arlington County and will maintain affordable rents for those making 60 percent or less of the area median income.
“It took the financial muscle of Amazon to make it happen,” said Arlington County Board member Takis P. Karantonis (D), an urban planner and economist.
But where the fund has tried to ensure rents stay low for a long time, or to ensure a certain number of units are secured across the D.C. region, it has not ensured those units are deeply affordable. That’s where Hyra and others say the need is greatest.
Amazon officials and county lawmakers say government assistance programs like the federal Housing Choice voucher program (formerly known as Section 8) are meant to fill the gap. Those vouchers can subsidize units like those at Barcroft, which are targeted for 60 percent of the area median income, and make them affordable to renters who make less than that.
Still, demand for those efforts far outstrips funding, and they do not always cover everyone who needs the assistance. Federal vouchers go to only about 1 in 4 households that qualify on basis of income, and a local equivalent in Arlington covers only seniors, people with disabilities and working families. Families with mixed immigration statuses, like Santos’s, do not qualify for full federal aid.
“It’s really about bricks and mortar, which is what you need to help people stay,” said Alice Hogan, a consultant with the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions. “If you don’t produce that supply, there’s nowhere for them to go live.”
Large tech companies began digging into their pockets to fund affordable housing about three years ago, following long-standing frustrations that they had helped create much of the shortage on the West Coast. Microsoft was the first to lead the charge, with $750 million for middle-income housing in Seattle’s eastern suburbs.
Competitors followed with more money and some different targets: Apple, which has pledged $2.5 billion, is purchasing mortgages for first-time home buyers in California. Google and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, each committed $1 billion, including a small slice to house formerly homeless people and some money pooled with other major employers in the San Francisco Bay area.
Some saw those efforts as a tacit recognition from these tech titans that they also needed to stabilize housing prices to attract their desired workforce. Homes in many parts of Silicon Valley have become prohibitively expensive even for well-paid software engineers, and Northern Virginia is not far behind.
Amazon became the latest to jump in, and the first to do so on the East Coast. But Hyra, the American University professor, said Amazon must look outside the tech industry if it hopes to make the most transformative impacts. He said the company could look to partner with public housing agencies in the D.C. region, or give out money that would fund more deeply affordable apartments.
Almost 95 percent of the money Amazon has given out in the D.C. region to date has taken the form of loans. If the company committed upfront grants that do not need to be paid back, developers could further lower rents and accommodate more lower-income renters, Hyra said.
Amazon spokeswoman Sarah Lee said the company does not disclose the terms of its loans, though Buell noted in an interview that most of the loans have interest rates that fall within 2 to 5 percent for about 20 to 30 years.
There may be technical reasons behind mostly giving out loans. For one, it means for-profit affordable-housing developers can continue to rely on federal dollars, another major source of funding. Private-sector funds like Amazon’s could also essentially expunge any debt later on.
In some cases, repaid loans can then be reinvested to finance other projects later down the line as a “revolving fund.” Buell said that while she “personally would love” to take on such an approach, Amazon officials have not yet determined whether their fund will follow the same model.
“Some of this is really understanding what the needs of the communities are 20 years out,” she said.
Danny Cendejas, an organizer with activist group For Us, Not Amazon, said Amazon should not be giving out loans at all, because they ultimately end up creating profit for the company, however small.
“It’s like trying to clean something with a dirty rag,” he said. “They may be able to get a little corner here that looks clean. But the rest of it is a mess.”
Yet, in the grand scheme of things, Alex Schafran, a visiting scholar at San José State University’s Institute for Metropolitan Studies, said Amazon’s money — whatever form it takes — does not shake up the housing system the same way the company has tried to revolutionize other areas of business.
Schafran, who has consulted for other tech titans’ funds, said they are merely offering more “cheap, patient capital” — a resource that is critical to development, but one that banks and others have already been supplying for nearly a century.
“Where I think we have to be careful,” he said, “is to imagine that a few billion dollars in loans will make any real dent in the problem or change the system in any real way. If tech wants to really change the system, it needs to lean in with its full economic and political weight.”