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Amazon donates $3 million for Arlington housing, backs new computer degree at NOVA and GMU

A pedestrian walks in December along Crystal Drive in Arlington’s Crystal City area. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Amazon will donate $3 million to support affordable housing in Arlington County and, in a separate venture, will help George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College create a new, high-tech bachelor’s degree to help meet its future workforce needs, the company announced Tuesday.

The initiatives are aimed at addressing concerns that the online retail giant’s new headquarters in Crystal City will drive up housing costs and that it and other companies are not able to find enough workers with the skills needed for the fast-changing technology industry.

While government officials and charities welcomed the affordable-housing donation, analysts and critics contend the amount is enough to build only a relatively small number of new units.

New housing in the Virginia suburbs costs about $350,000 per unit, according to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, and the need for new affordable units runs in the tens of thousands, according to local governments and housing specialists.

In the education effort, Amazon Web Services — the retailer’s large cloud-computing subsidiary — will provide curriculum and other support to George Mason and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) to create what was described as a unique program to produce cloud-computing graduates that tech companies are clamoring to hire.

The program will allow students finishing two years at NOVA to transfer “seamlessly” to the four-year GMU, saving tuition in the process, officials said.

Cloud computing offers access to shared, remote data centers over the Internet so customers need not rely on a local server or personal computer.

The company announced the initiatives as Amazon Web Services opened a conference Tuesday in the District on cloud computing and the public sector. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon will donate $3 million to the Arlington Community Foundation to support affordable housing and fight homelessness and make a $5 million contribution to a similar charity in Seattle.

Amazon also will match its employees’ contributions, up to $5 million, to selected local charities that aid housing in the two communities, through Sept. 30.

Since Amazon announced in November that it was building a second headquarters in Crystal City, critics and supporters alike have urged it to do more to support affordable housing. The company is under similar pressure in Seattle.

The online retailer plans to hire at least 25,000 employees over the next 10 to 12 years in Arlington, for jobs paying an average annual salary of at least $150,000. Middle- and lower-income residents in neighborhoods near Crystal City fear the Amazon hires will drive up rents and housing prices, forcing them out.

Amazon’s $3 million donation will create a fund that can be used to subsidize some costs of new affordable housing and pay for services for homeless people or those who cannot afford their rent.

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“Some of it may be for bricks and mortar, and some of it may be for support services,” said Jennifer Owens, president and chief executive of the Arlington Community Foundation. She called the donation “generous” and “a significant investment in our community.”

But critics said the donation would get the company positive publicity while accomplishing little.

“It’s a piddling amount for the problem at hand,” tweeted Alex Howe, co-chair of the Northern Virginia branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Amazon Senior Vice President Jay Carney, asked about the criticism during the AWS conference, called the company’s donation “a start.”

“It’s the beginning of the effort that we’re going to make in this space and not the end,” Carney said.

He reiterated comments he made in a May interview with The Washington Post that government has the primary responsibility for ensuring there is enough affordable housing.

“The private sector can’t solve affordable housing challenges on its own. . . . It’s something that government agencies need to do by setting policies that create an environment where affordable housing can be built and sustained,” Carney said Tuesday. “We can certainly be a partner in that, and that’s what this initial investment represents.”

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who appeared on a panel with Carney, said Monday that he wanted “to see Amazon have some skin in the game on affordable housing.”

On Tuesday, Warner said the newly announced donation was “a good first step,” adding, “The challenge with the growth issues . . . is making sure that we don’t repeat the mistake that’s happened in a host of communities all over the country where [there’s] a big positive new economic development investment and you drive existing neighborhoods out.”

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Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey (D), who has supported the Amazon project, said he was “pleased to see Amazon’s willingness to work together with other businesses and local community-based organizations to improve outcomes for our residents.”

Owens said the county was suffering from a serious housing shortage well before Amazon arrived. Arlington has lost nearly 90 percent of its market affordable housing over the past 20 years.

The foundation chief praised Amazon for what she said was a cooperative approach, with the company seeking to work with the group to determine how to best use the money.

“What I’m excited about is that Amazon has come at this as a true partner rather than a prescriber,” she said.

Owens described the financial arithmetic of building affordable housing, to illustrate how costly it would be to have a major impact via construction subsidies.

Typically, affordable housing in Arlington is built for households with incomes of about $70,000 a year, she said. To lower the cost so the housing is affordable for households with incomes of about $35,000 a year, a subsidy of $115,000 per unit is needed, Owens said.

So if the entire $3 million donation from Amazon were used to lower the cost of housing in that way, it would benefit 26 households.

Amazon paid no federal income tax in 2018 on $11.2 billion in profit. Asked whether the company’s $3 million donation was enough given the need for affordable housing in the county, Owens said, “I don’t think it would be fair to say that anybody in our community is doing enough.”

Amazon is helping GMU and NOVA with the cloud-computing degree to expand the tech talent pipeline that it views as crucial to its future growth. The two education institutions said they see high demand from students for such training.

“This is the right degree at the right time,” said Michelle Marks, vice president for academic innovation and new ventures at George Mason. “We expect the cloud-computing degree will be extremely popular.”

By attending the lower-priced community college for the first two years of the program and then transferring to the four-year university, students can save about $15,000 in tuition, Marks said.

Graduates with cloud-computing degrees typically get well-paying jobs. Such a degree prepares graduates for Amazon Web Services certifications and annual starting salaries of $108,000 to $138,000.

Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.