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Bowser’s affordable housing push gets a $147M boost from Amazon

The tech giant’s Housing Equity Fund is helping to build or preserve 1,260 units in D.C. area

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser holds a news conference on affordable housing at the Spring Flats housing complex in May 2021. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A push by D.C. officials to ramp up the construction of more affordable housing across the city is getting a hand from Amazon, which said Wednesday it is committing $147 million to help build or preserve 1,260 units for middle- and low-income residents in and around the District.

The money comes from the company’s Housing Equity Fund, an effort rolled out by the tech giant to alleviate the shortage of affordable housing in D.C., Nashville and Seattle. Amazon is growing its corporate footprint in these three metro areas, and activists and government officials have worried an influx of well-paid tech employees will make that shortage even worse — to the point it could push out longtime residents.

“By working with these diverse development organizations, we can create long-lasting and inclusive affordable housing closer to public transit and other amenities that will improve quality of life for residents,” Catherine Buell, the housing fund’s director, said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’ll also help ensure families across Washington, D.C. are not displaced from their communities.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon will bring more than 25,000 workers to the region as it opens its new headquarters. Experts weigh in on how this could impact gentrification and jobs. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post, Photo: Jackie Lay/The Washington Post)

Buell and D.C. officials announced the commitments at the Congress Heights Apartments in Ward 8, a 47-unit housing complex that had been the subject of a lengthy legal battle between the D.C. Attorney General’s Office and a landlord until a settlement in January. It is one of 11 projects around the D.C. area that Amazon is helping to fund.

Low-income tenants at the property, which is next to the Congress Heights Metro station, had for years been living in squalid conditions, including persistent mold and pests that were never addressed. D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) alleged that the landlord, Sanford Capital, had through its neglect been trying to force out low-income renters and make way for more expensive market-rate housing.

A small number of remaining Congress Heights tenants have been living in temporary housing off-site through much of the legal fight.

“Today is about partnership, commitment, and perseverance,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at the news conference. “Perseverance from the families who stuck with us and will soon be able to return home to this location — and what a location it is.”

Ownership of the property was transferred as part of the settlement to a real estate investment firm, which plans to work with the nonprofit National Housing Trust to tear down the existing buildings and replace them with new units. Amazon is bankrolling $12.7 million of the project’s $109 million total development cost through a grant and a below-market-rate loan, according to the National Housing Trust.

The revamped Congress Heights Apartments will include 179 new units for households earning between 30 to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) — about $38,700 to $82,300 for a family of four.

Bowser has set a goal of creating 36,000 new housing units in the District by 2025, including 12,000 that are affordable to households earning between 30 to 80 percent of the AMI. Her effort, which is independent of Amazon, has emphasized creating units in all eight of the city’s wards, particularly in wealthier ones that have not always welcomed low-income renters.

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Wednesday’s announcement involves eight projects scattered around six D.C. wards, in addition to one project each in Fairfax, Montgomery and Price George’s counties.

Critics of Amazon’s Housing Equity Fund have said the company’s efforts have not sufficiently benefited poorer families, particularly those who make too little to keep up with rising rents but too much to qualify for most public benefits.

Amazon has billed the fund as an effort to help renters making between 30 and 80 percent of the AMI. But as of April, just 6 percent of the units secured with that money in the D.C. area had been set aside for families at the lower end of that interval, according to data provided by the company.

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Four of the 11 properties included in Wednesday’s announcement in and around the District will create or preserve units affordable to families making between 30 and 50 percent of the AMI. Amazon officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how many units that will be in total.

At the Congress Heights Apartments, 5 percent of units will be targeted to households making 30 percent of the AMI, 75 percent for those at 50 percent AMI, and 20 percent for those at 80 percent AMI, D.C. officials said in January.

Last summer, the company said it would commit $125 million from its fund to build new units on land owned by Metro or near Metro stations. Amazon also did not say how many of the 11 properties, including at least three near Metro stations, received money from that preexisting funding commitment.

Amazon has already hired 5,000 employees to work out of the new headquarters it is building in Arlington, with another 20,000 hires expected to be made by 2030. The company stands to receive up to $573 million in subsidies from local and state governments if it meets those hiring goals, or up to $773 million if it surpasses them.

Arlington officials had expected to pay the company hundreds of thousands of dollars by this summer when their agreement was signed in 2019, but the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the local economy means no money has been paid out to the company yet.

In addition to the Congress Heights Apartments, Amazon’s $147 million is also helping to fund the construction or purchase and preservation of:

  • An existing apartment complex in Ward 5’s Carver-Langston neighborhood, which will preserve 320 affordable units for households earning between 30 to 60 percent of the AMI
  • A new assisted-living community one block away from the Benning Road Metro station in Ward 7, which will create 156 apartments for households earning 60 percent AMI
  • A new apartment building in Petworth in Ward 4, which will include 40 units for households earning between 50 to 80 percent AMI
  • A new apartment building across the street from the Takoma Metro station in Ward 4, including 102 units for households earning between 60 to 80 percent AMI
  • A new development on S Street in Ward 2, which will include 90 units for households earning 60 percent AMI
  • Three existing apartment buildings in Mount Pleasant in Ward 1, which will convert 165 units for households earning between 40 to 80 percent AMI
  • An existing building in Columbia Heights in Ward 1, which will convert 99 apartments for households earning between 30 to 80 percent AMI
  • A new development near the Capitol Heights Metro station in Prince George’s County, which will include 130 units for households earning between 70 to 80 percent AMI
  • A new development in Montgomery County, which will create 163 affordable homes for households earning between 30 to 80 percent AMI
  • A set of 18 condominiums at a complex in the Hybla Valley area of Fairfax County, which will be preserved for households earning 50 percent AMI