As Amazon becomes seen as a boogeyman for all of the city’s ills, some blue-badged employees are puzzled; others share in the growing pains.
Amazon manager Levent Hamdemir, a recent transplant from Michigan, is not immune to the woes of Seattle’s skyrocketing real-estate costs. The house he bought in Queen Anne, he says, is half the size of his Michigan house and three times more expensive.
That said, he’s not complaining. He sees it as the price of living in a big city — one, due in large part to Amazon, that is on its way to being “as cool or cooler than San Francisco.”
Co-worker Scotty Jones, standing with Hamdemir in the afternoon sunshine on Fairview Avenue North, has an even more upbeat view. Jones bought a house on Bainbridge Island in 2013 for $400,000. Now it’s worth $500,000. “It’s awesome!” he said.
He might not want to say that too loudly. Many Seattleites see the price of homeownership as a crisis, not an asset. And right or wrong, they know whom to blame: Amazon.
In fact, it’s all but guaranteed that at any given time someone somewhere is blaming Amazon for something: spiraling housing costs, worsening traffic jams or the specter of income inequality. Amazon doesn’t even win points for its strikingly international workforce. Critics, including founders of an anti-Amazon website launched last week, accuse the company of making the city less diverse.
How does it feel to live in a city where you have become a boogeyman? That’s a difficult question to answer because Amazon, as a company, is loath to discuss such sentiments and doesn’t like workers talking on their own. But interviews around the company’s sprawling South Lake Union campus found many willing to talk anyway — some baffled by the haters, some sympathetic to their concerns and some wrestling with the same problems brought by the city’s explosive, Amazon-fueled growth.
To be sure, not everyone is mad at Amazon. Mike McQuaid, president of the South Lake Union Community Council, said the company has sparked “potentially the biggest urban revitalization in America.”
“I think Amazon has had a spectacularly positive impact on the city,” agreed Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist and social activist who was one of the company’s first investors. Yet even Hanauer is quick to add that Seattle’s corresponding growth has caused a plethora of problems.
Jeff Reifman, a former Microsoft program manager turned writer and critic of the tech world, makes the point sharply. “I just feel like Seattle is getting ruined,” he said.
He elaborates on a website he just co-founded with artist Kali Snowden called “Flee the Jungle,” which encourages people to drop their Amazon Prime memberships and shop elsewhere. “The truth is that Amazon’s quickly turning Seattle into a traffic congested mess for a wealthy mostly white male class of what many call ‘Brogrammers.’ ”
“It’s time,” he continues, “to slow Amazon down and force them to engage in these issues progressively.”
That was the same message brought by a couple dozen protesters outside Amazon’s shareholders meeting in June.
“You need to take responsibility for how you’re screwing up our roads,” Robby Stern, president of the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, told a union leader who was posing as Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. (“Come to work for Amazon,” said the pretend Bezos, who seemed like a cross between Marie Antoinette and the Wizard of Oz. “Then you can buy a Tesla.”)
“You cannot extract enormous profits without giving back to the city,” City Councilmember Bruce Harrell inveighed at the protest, addressing Amazon. “We will hold you accountable.”
Around the same time, an Amazonian looked up from his phone and considered his company’s impact on Seattle. “You tell me,” he said, gesturing to the sweep of new buildings around him, bustling with chatting, coffee-sipping and device-checking blue-badged employees. “Isn’t economic growth good?”
On a similar note, co-workers Hamdemir and Jones called attention to the area’s wealth of new restaurants, cafes and food trucks, offering everything from Indian chicken masala to Taiwanese “bao,” or buns.
Big workforce, big incomes
David Philips, a longtime Seattleite who works on an Amazon design team, gets the concerns about growth. A supporter of bringing rent control to Seattle, he said he has a lot of artist friends who have been gentrified out of Capitol Hill.
He, like many of his co-workers, just doesn’t see Amazon as the sole reason, given the flurry of tech companies settling here and the investors from far and wide who are snapping up real estate.
That’s true, acknowledged veteran Seattle economist Dick Conway. At the same time, he attributes much of what’s going on in the local economy to dramatic job growth at two companies: Amazon and Boeing.
And while Boeing began trimming its workforce recently, Amazon keeps booming. It now employs more than 24,000 people in the state, and is planning office space that could accommodate twice that just in Seattle.
Amplifying the impact of these new employees is their relative affluence. Looking at state employment figures categorized by industry, Conway deduced that they earn about $100,000 on average.
Privileged though they may be, many Amazonians don’t feel themselves to be at the top of Seattle’s food chain. One worker talked about moving to Shoreline to find a reasonably priced apartment big enough for his family.
Another said he lost out on housing bids — three times — to buyers able to plunk down $600,000 in cash. Having previously lived in Texas and New York, he said nonetheless: “I love Seattle. This is probably one of the best places I have ever lived.”
He added that he doesn’t feel like an interloper, but part of the fabric of the city. He talks to his neighbors, goes to concerts in the park and is about to send the older of his two children to public school.
As it happens, he’s not a white Brogrammer, but an immigrant from India. Indeed, if there’s one charge that seems to puzzle Amazonians the most, it’s that the company is making Seattle less diverse. “Look at me!” declared José Hurtado, a Mexican programmer dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the company’s affinity group for LGBT employees: “GLAmazon.”
He said that on his team of 20, a dozen are from other countries, including Ukraine, Costa Rica and China.
Figures released by Amazon last year show an imbalance in its U.S. workforce when it comes to gender; only 37 percent are female. But when it comes to race, Amazon is more diverse than the nation as a whole, with 40 percent of workers identifying as nonwhite.
What’s more, census figures show Seattle is becoming more diverse, not less. The percentage of Seattle residents who are people of color — roughly 34 percent in the latest figures — has been inching upward in the last decade and grown dramatically since 1990, when only 25 percent of the population were minority members. Notably, it’s the wealthier North End that is seeing the biggest increases among minorities, suggesting that some of these new residents might be well-paid Amazonians.
Assessing company generosity
At the protest outside the shareholders’ meeting, Harrell related how he had recently called Amazon executive John Schoettler twice to talk about transit and other issues. “Basically, I was just trying to build a relationship.” The council member said his calls went unreturned.
Amazon Vice President of Global Communications Craig Berman said he believes Schoettler, who oversees the company’s real estate internationally, had been traveling.
But the perceived snub illustrates how Amazon at times seems aloof, predisposing Seattleites to believe the worst about the company.
Amazon’s historically anemic civic presence doesn’t help, either. That seems to be changing, to some extent. Schoettler, for example, will soon take over as chairman of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. And the company has made a few big gifts, like $1 million to the University of Washington for computer-science positions.
“There are lots and lots of groups we’re giving money to,” Berman said. If that isn’t widely known, he said, it’s because Amazon is reluctant to brag.
But it’s also because Amazon generally declines to reveal how much money it has donated, whether in total or in regard to a specific grant, making it hard to assess its generosity.
Compare that with the Bay Area’s Google, which has a fact sheet at the ready citing its $100 million of local donations, its sponsorship of a $6.8 million transit program for low-income youth, and its participation in coalitions to work on transportation and other local problems.
Berman was specific when it comes to money Amazon has contributed toward affordable housing in Seattle: $18 million. That would seem to be just the kind of giving, toward a problem Amazon has exacerbated, that critics are calling for. But that sum doesn’t constitute donations; it was required by the city in exchange for building permits allowing extra density.
If Amazon was especially generous, if it did start digging into the problems that it helped create, could it improve its public image? Maybe. Maybe not.
Jeff Kositsky, executive director of Hamilton Family Center, a San Francisco homeless-services provider, says Google came to him to talk about how it could help with housing and homelessness. The Internet giant ended up donating $1 million to his organization.
Still, he says local resentment against Google and the tech sector — for the same reasons as in Seattle but even more fierce in the Bay Area — has continued unabated. It’s a vicious circle, as he sees it. Activists may want tech companies to get more involved in civic life, but “No one wants to be part of a community that’s throwing bombs at them,” he said.