News

Affordable Housing $ From Amazon Gives F.C. a Full Plate of Funds

As the Falls Church City Council mulls how to spend $18 million in emergency Covid-19 related federal funds, it is also facing the issue of how to best deploy millions in funds from Amazon, among the $2 billion the corporate giant is tossing around Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the DMV region to make for a more favorable receipt of its giant second corporate headquarters just down the road in Crystal City.

The City of Falls Church must use the Amazon money for the purpose of making affordable housing available, and in the City’s original application late last year, it stated it would use the money for helping first time home buyers. As the money has not yet been received, the City has not done more yet to work out its deployment.

Now, the City is ready to apply for another $5 million from Amazon, which F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields said would go to preserve existing rental units. A concern, Shields told the News-Press in an interview yesterday, has to do with the fact that Amazon wants their money used quickly, which limits the City’s options.

Amazon is also committed to providing another big chunk of help with affordable housing that has to be designated for properties in the immediate neighborhood of Metrorail stations.

Overall, Amazon has created a $2 billion Housing Equity Fund which it intends to use through below-market loans and grants handled by both traditional and non-traditional public agencies and minority-led organizations to create over 20,000 affordable living units in this region.

In June, Amazon and WMATA teamed up to commit $125 million to create 1,000 affordable living units on WMATA lands adjacent Metro rail stations and it is hoped that a bunch of those will go on WMATA land at the West Falls Church Metro station.

That will tie in with the City of Falls Church’s aggressive plans to develop 9.75 acres on the site of the former (now demolished) George Mason High School and the Virginia Tech-held land in between. Three parcels — WMATA, Virginia Tech and the F.C. site — combined would represent one of the region’s biggest development projects, over 40 acres, tied together by a grand boulevard running down its middle connecting Route 7 with the West Falls Church Metro station.

In a statement from Amazon, the linking of mass transit and affordable housing was presented as key to uplifting the population of the region in which they operate. In the June press release, Amazon’s Catherine Buell, head of Community Development, said, “Amazon is committed to creating and preserving inclusive housing developments so moderate-to-low families can thrive and benefit from the goodness our region has to offer.”

“Housing and transit are the first and second largest expenses for most households in America and Amazon’s funding will expedite affordable housing near transit, reducing costs for both while supporting families with long-term financial stability,” she added.

Amazon’s $2 billion commitment to preserve and develop equitable transit-oriented affordable housing units, some 20,000 of them, overall will be handled through its Housing Development Fund created in January 2021. The beneficiaries of it are all located in one of its three major centers, being the Washington state Puget Sound region; Nashville, Tennessee; and greater Arlington, in Virginia.

According to an Amazon statement, the company is “guided by four principles, customer obsession rather than competitor focus, passion for invention, commitment to operational excellence, and long-term thinking.”

It says, “Amazon strives to be the Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company, Earth’s Best Employer and the Earth’s safest place to work.”

In a live interactive forum on the Internet Tuesday, leaders of Amazon and the local community shared goals and aspirations in a program entitled, “The Amazon Opportunity,” led off by Jay Carney, a former press secretary to President Obama who has been with Amazon the last six years.

“Our goal is to weave ourselves into the communities we’re in and not to be in isolation,” said Carney. He said the company has operated with a $16 minimum wage policy and advocates legislation to bring a minimum $15 minimum wage as national policy.

Spokesmen on panels included Victor Hoskins of the Fairfax Economic Development Authority, Liza Wilson Durant of George Mason University and Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in D.C. Also, Katie Cristol of the Arlington County Board and Joe Wooley of the National Lesbian and Gay Chamber of Commerce’s Nashville chapter spoke.

Amazon’s Guy Palumbo spoke about the transit-affordable housing goal, saying the goal is “to get housing and transit married.”

It was noted that every 100 affordable units creates 300 jobs.

Cristol’s comments gave “very high ratings for Amazon’’ that have “outstripped our aspirations.” It was the first big company to sign onto an anti-discrimnation letter, and that, really, Arlington’s concessions to Amazon were “very modest.” Amazon “has really stepped up to the plate,” she noted, including references to the number public forums it has held at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Amazon’s Crystal City neighborhood, the only gay bar in Northern Virginia.