Amazon may not be all evil

Online giant is helping funding affordable housing in three cities


It came as a small blip, unable to compete with the rest of the apocalyptic news cycle, but last week Amazon, Seattle’s favorite harbinger of evil, did something good. Really good.

Whatever you think of the world’s second-richest person (shout out to Elon Musk for edging ahead in the latest CNBC flaunt-the-wealth tabulation), however much time you’ve spent over the past decade lobbing darts at a photo of Jeff Bezos, it’s hard to look at the latest news coming from Amazon with the usual outrage.

Let’s talk about that news.

Last week, the world’s largest online retailer, destroyer of the human shopping experience, announced it had created something called the “Amazon Housing Equity Fund,” which is designed to address affordable housing crises in its three stronghold cities, Seattle, Nashville and Arlington, Va. Amazon committed to spending $2 billion to seed the fund. So far, $567 million of the fund has already been earmarked for projects in each of the three target cities.

In Washington State, Amazon has partnered with the King County Housing Authority, offering $161.5 million in low-interest loans (with sweetheart terms) and $24 million in grants to purchase and preserve low-income housing in the Puget Sound Region.

So far the partners have purchased three apartment buildings, totaling 470 units, in Bellevue, a one-time Seattle bedroom community that has, over the past few decades, become a city in its own right. Units are available to those making 80 percent (or less) of the area median. Ultimately, the partnership between Amazon and the Housing Authority plans to create or preserve approximately 1,500 housing units in the area.

Likewise does Amazon have big plans in Northern Virginia, home to 1,000 Amazon jobs that were turned away from Long Island City, Queens. The fund has already committed $381.9 million to the Washington Housing Conservancy, which is using the funds to convert 1,300 market-rate units at the massive Crystal House high-rise (in the Crystal City area) into affordable housing. Units will be made available to renters earning less than 80 percent of the area median income. Plans in Nashville are not yet concrete, though Amazon has already donated $2 million to The Housing Fund, a local non-profit.

By 2025, the fund will have created or preserved 20,000 affordable units between now and 2025, which seems like pretty big news to me; and yet, reaction has been, so far, muted. Amazon and its executives have proudly and understandably flooded social media with announcements, but comments on their posts have been few and have included several designed to retrofit the announcement to fit into the popular “Jeff Bezos is Satan, Amazon is responsible for the housing crisis, so this is the least they can do” narrative.

But is it the least they can do? Over the past 25 years we’ve found a sweet spot assuming the worst about tech participants, be they the ashram-visiting, hoody-sporting eccentrics at the top or the lowly coders toiling away beneath them, because it was easy. We just slotted them in to receive the disdain we’d aimed at lawyers, bankers and politicians in the past.

But consider this: the $2 billion Amazon has pledged — and the $1 billion Facebook and Google each pledged to affordable housing in 2019, along with Apple’s $2.5 billion and the $500 million pledged two years ago by the once-reviled but now OG of tech largesse, Bill Gates of Microsoft — shows up pretty well when you compare it to the $500 million Bay Area Housing Fund, also launched two years ago, that required participation from four separate foundations and at least a half-dozen companies, including Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Genentech and Morgan Stanley.

I’m not here to convince you that Jeff Bezos is a trim, gleaming-domed Santa Claus, or that Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg should be canonized. We all understand that you don’t get to be a billionaire by keeping your foot off of the gas. But maybe, when these would-be Emperor Palpatines do something like this, some act of good that is huge and in fact unprecedented, rather than sticking to the script and saying it’s not enough, or assuming, Bernie Sanders-style, that it’s all a cynical PR stunt, we should instead recognize good when it happens, even — and maybe especially — if it comes from someone we’ve already written off as bad.

Larry Rosen is a San Francisco-based writer, editor, podcaster and recovering former Realtor. He is a guest columnist and his viewpoint is not necessarily that of the Examiner. The Market Musings real estate column appears every other week.

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