Officials excited for Amazon jobs, but concerned over lack of housing even before the tech giant arrives

Officials excited for Amazon jobs, but concerned over lack of housing even before the tech giant arrives

Photo: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Facebook page

In the wake of Amazon’s announcement to build its second headquarters (dubbed HQ2) in Arlington’s Crystal City neighborhood, real estate prices are projected to soar and officials are mixed on how to ensure affordable housing for Northern Virginia residents.

Finding housing in a rapidly growing community has been a concern in the area for years. A recent survey conducted by Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition (SUV GOP) found that suburban residents in the area named affordable housing as one of their four key issues, in addition to commuter transportation, property taxes, and education.

Just in the past week, real estate interest in Crystal City has skyrocketed. Redfin, a real estate brokerage, reported that views of Crystal City listings were up 210 percent.

Arlington’s median home value is currently $664,400, according to data from online real estate and rental marketplace, Zillow. That is a 2.2 percent increase from last year, with a projected 2.4 percent increase in 2019. Apartment List reported that rental prices in the area are trending steadily upwards as well, with year by year increases of over two percent in places like Arlington, Manassas, Leesburg and Ashburn.

Nevertheless, many organizations are thrilled about Amazon’s movement, banking on the marketplace giant’s projected 25,000 jobs to the area and $3.2 billion in new taxes for Virginia over the next 12 years.

“It’s a win-win for the region,” said Paul DesJardin, community planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG). “We have the talent, we have the market, we have the assets,” he said. “We really think we can manage this, because it’s been planned for.”

“We fit the bill for what Amazon was looking for,” DesJardin noted. “We have a tremendously talented workforce, particularly in tech areas like IT, systems engineering and software development. We’re right on top of high-capacity transit between VRE [Virginia Railway Express], Metro, BRT [bus rapid transit], slug lines, and HOV [high occupancy vehicle] lanes.”

2005’s BRAC a loss for Crystal City, a bonus for Amazon

DesJardin also referenced Crystal City’s loss of workers from 2005’s BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) as an unexpected bonus for Amazon. Over the course of five years, thousands of department of defense employees, military and civilian contractors were relocated out of the city to places like Quantico and Ft. Belvoir, which left an enormous amount of vacant office buildings that never quite recovered.

BRAC cost Crystal City upward of 13,000 jobs, said DesJardin, and Amazon’s HQ2 is going right into that same neighborhood– an “ideal location” requiring minimum investment and primed for becoming “a more 24-hour community with more homes, apartments and entertainment.” Amazon will also invest a reported $2.5 billion into the HQ2 neighborhood.

Ahead of Amazon, homes are few

But while there is plenty of pre-existing office space for Amazon to move into, homes for middle and low-income workers are growing scarce.

“There is a housing challenge in this region,” DesJardin concurred. “Our board has acknowledged that, and identified it as a priority going forward this year.”

MWCOG is partnering with a number of different agencies around the region to address the housing challenge, said DesJardin. One example is Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit organization that helps finance, build and advocate for affordable housing for low and moderate-income families.

“We do need more housing at the proper price ranges. We want to create great mixed communities; places like Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center,” DesJardin said. “They put apartments right next to the Wegmans, shopping centers and restaurants. It’s packed. These are the types of places people want to live and work. Jobs, housing, entertainment, 24-hour access; everything people want.”

Amazon’s projected HQ2 location has already been rebranded to “National Landing,” which includes parts of Crystal City, Pentagon City, and Potomac Yard in Alexandria. A website for the newly-minted neighborhood promises 17,000,000 square feet of office space and “24,000 housing units affordable at average Amazon income within two miles.”

Incomes at Amazon vary widely, but according to PayScale they range from $60,000 to $150,000. Tech and software jobs command the higher end of the range.

Virginia Delegate says dump Amazon deal

Some elected officials do not think housing will remain affordable for residents, and would rather pull the plug on the deal.

“Amazon’s relocation will price people out of their homes,” said Lee Carter, democratic delegate for Virginia’s 50th House district in Manassas and Prince William County. “We’ve seen this time and again. The most prominent examples are on the West Coast, such as in Seattle. Workers with six-figure salaries are struggling to live in Seattle now.”

“This is an area with extraordinarily low unemployment and an already tight housing market, and we’re cramming more and more jobs in at the top of that income level,” said Carter.

Carter said that this trend was already in place long before Amazon, as low and middle-income workers were priced out of Alexandria and Arlington. Fairfax became the next closest neighborhood, and after it grew too expensive, people moved further out.

Residents in Prince William County and Manassas will soon face the same issues, said Carter.

“They are getting more expensive, people are going to have to move to Fauquier and Stafford and their quality of life is getting worse,” he said. “This conventional economic development model of just cramming more people into a confined area isn’t going to work.”

Carter maintains that the General Assembly should prevent the deal from moving forward in the 2019 legislative session.

“The governor has promised legislative action to Amazon. He didn’t ask us first. That’s not how this works,” said Carter.

“We need to stand up and say we’re not going to bend over backwards for the governor and Amazon,” Carter stated. “We are going to fight for the constituents that we have that are counting on us to not make their lives worse.”

In his press statement about the Amazon announcement, from a podium emblazoned with “Virginia Is For Amazon Lovers,” Governor Ralph Northam touted the state as “dedicated to being on the leading edge of the next technology and innovative breakthroughs” and “consistently ranked one of the best states for governance, due to our fiscal stability and transparency.”

Surrounding counties will absorb Amazon workers, families

Virginia’s promised economic incentives of the deal, which Amazon will benefit from for the next 20 years, are not yet public.

Mike Ginsberg, a member of the SUV GOP steering committee, said in a news release that “adding 25,000 new employees and their families to Northern Virginia will exacerbate the existing concerns of Northern Virginia residents.”

“These new families will not only be locating in Arlington County but also in the surrounding counties of Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, where school budgets are straining, commuter traffic is some of the worst in the country and housing costs and property taxes have skyrocketed since the recession,” Ginsberg stated.

“We are excited about Amazon’s decision to locate in Crystal City and all that it means for our region. However, we believe voters and elected officials should be cognizant of the fiscal impact on local budgets and the local communities surrounding Crystal City,” said Ginsberg.

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Erma Campos