Just a short while ago, Amazon, the e-commerce behemoth which touts itself as “earth’s most customer-centric company,” announced its plans to open a second North American headquarters. As cities scramble to submit proposals aimed at attracting Amazon, its $5 billion-dollar investment, and its 50,000 high paying jobs with compensation exceeding $100K, Atlanta has emerged as a top contender for Amazon’s “HQ2” pick. Playing host to the Amazon expansion brings with it the potential to shape and transform a community. As Atlanta’s Westside finds itself on the list of desirable sites to house the second headquarters, questions loom about the impact to a community already in flux. More pointedly, questions about housing affordability, avenues to pipeline current community members into new Amazon created jobs, and initiatives that support Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) in public schools, in Atlanta’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and in technical schools like Atlanta Metropolitan College are of critical concern and importance.
We need not look any further than Seattle, the current location of Amazon’s headquarters, to assess the impact that the company has had on the housing market. Seattle currently holds the distinction for having the fastest growing home prices in the country. Along with this, Seattle is also one of the nation’s most unequal cities as measured by household income. Both outcomes, in part, can be traced back to Amazon’s entry into the Seattle market. What this has meant for low and middle-income residents is a transition to outlining communities in search of affordable housing options. Communities on Atlanta’s Westside have already been hard hit by gentrification, so any expansion by Amazon into the Westside would require a plan to maintain affordable housing options. One way to achieve this is through mandatory inclusionary zoning which would require that a certain percentage of affordable housing be allocated for any new multifamily project that is for sale or rent and has 20 units or more. There would also need to be a plan in place to address the impact of increases in housing prices on current homeowners. This may include working with the local officials to put a cap on property tax increases.
Almost all of the potential job that would be brought to Atlanta and to the Westside would be white-collar jobs that require the completion of a bachelor’s degree, at minimum. This would exclude a large population of residents living in the area. However, there would be the opportunity to pipeline residents into other jobs on the HQ2 campus. If the Seattle campus is indicative of the plans for a second campus, there would be a number of non-technical jobs that could provide opportunities to members of the community. To avoid the qualms voiced by those dissatisfied by the job opportunities created as a result of the Mercedes Benz Stadium, an Amazon campus on the Westside would need to make paying $15 an hour mandatory, provide medical benefits for full-time employees and allow for benefits such as tuition reimbursement and discounts for public transportation. There would also need to be careful consideration for current small businesses within the community. Amazon’s campus would practically be a city of its own with restaurants and retailers. A deal to bring Amazon into the Westside would need to include protections to ensure that Amazon’s presence does not negatively impact existing retailers.
Schools across the country have started to place a strong emphasis on the creation of STEM based programs in hopes that students will view these disciplines as springboards for their careers. Amazon could greatly contribute to the diversity within the field. With a campus on the Westside, Amazon would be uniquely positioned to bring high-quality STEM content and experiences to students from low-income, high-need schools. The company could also create mentorship and internship opportunities to local high school students. This also provides a chance to establish a pipeline for Atlanta University Center (AUC) students and for students enrolled in technical schools like Atlanta Metropolitan College into technology based companies like Amazon. A robust program with area colleges would include partnerships that would place Amazon engineers as faculty at these schools, and perhaps, generate partnerships akin to “Howard West,” the satellite campus of Howard University stationed at the Google, which serves as a three-month residency for juniors and seniors in Howard’s computer science program. There should also be a commitment to professionals who are looking to restart their careers. This program would mimic an internship, and allow for participants to explore a new area of expertise and learn new skills.
As Atlanta, and potentially the Westside, plan for a future that includes Amazon, the city must make sure that they approach the process equitably and with an eye out for all communities, ensuring that people are not displaced, that there are opportunities for non-white collar jobs, and that a pipeline is being created that will place students in jobs at Amazon. Most importantly, we must make sure that the culture of the Westside is being preserved and honored.
Eric T. Paulk is an advocate working at the intersections of law, policy, race, and sex. He is a proud resident of Atlanta’s Historic Westside and a graduate of Morehouse College.