Amazon will donate $3 million to support affordable housing in Arlington County, Virginia, and in a separate venture, will help George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College create a new bachelor’s degree to help meet its future workforce needs, the company announced Tuesday.
The initiatives are aimed at addressing concerns that the online retail giant’s new headquarters in Crystal City will drive up housing costs, and that it and other companies aren’t able to find enough workers with skills needed for the fast-changing tech industry.
While news about the affordable housing donation was welcomed by government officials and charities, analysts and critics say it is too small to cover the cost of more than a handful of new units.
New housing in the Virginia suburbs costs about $350,000 apiece, according to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, and the need for new affordable units runs in the tens of thousands, according to local governments and housing specialists.
In the education effort, Amazon Web Services – the retailer’s large cloud computing subsidiary – will provide curriculum and other support to George Mason and Northern Virginia Community College to create what was described as a unique program to produce cloud computing graduates whom tech companies are clamoring to hire.
The program will allow students finishing two years at the community college to transfer to the four-year university, saving tuition in the process, officials said.
The company announced the initiatives as Amazon Web Services opened a conference Tuesday in the District of Columbia on cloud computing and the public sector. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amazon will donate $3 million to the Arlington Community Foundation to support affordable housing and fight homelessness, and make a $5 million contribution to a similar charity in Seattle.
Amazon also will match its employees’ contributions to selected local charities that aid housing in the two communities through Sept. 30, up to $5 million.
The company’s robust creation of high-paying jobs – planned in Arlington and underway in Seattle – has caused anxiety in both communities about the impact on housing prices and the displacement of established residents.
Amazon’s donation will create a fund that can both subsidize some costs of new affordable housing and pay for services for homeless people or others who can’t afford their rent.
“Some of it may be for bricks and mortar, and some of it may be for support services,” said Jennifer Owens, president and CEO of the Arlington Community Foundation.
She called the donation “generous” and “a significant investment in our community,” which will raise the total charitable funds managed by the foundation to $24 million from $21 million.
But critics said the donation would get the company positive publicity while accomplishing little.
“It’s a piddling amount for the problem at hand,” tweeted Alex Howe, co-leader of the northern Virginia branch of Democratic Socialists of America.
Since Amazon announced in November that it was building a second headquarters in Crystal City, critics and supporters alike have urged it to do more to support affordable housing and address homelessness.
“I want to see Amazon have some skin in the game on affordable housing,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who supports the Crystal City headquarters, said Monday,
The online retailer plans to hire at least 25,000 employees over the next 10 to 12 years with an average annual salary of at least $150,000. Middle- and lower-income residents in neighborhoods near Crystal City fear the Amazon hires will drive up rents and housing prices, forcing them out.
“Homelessness and affordable housing are real concerns in Seattle and the Washington, D.C., region,” Amazon Senior Vice President Jay Carney said. “As neighbors in both, we made these donations to (Seattle’s) Plymouth Housing and the Arlington Community Foundation because of their work and progress on housing stability and helping families improve their quality of life.”
Carney said in a May interview with The Washington Post that the company would be able to plan better for its growth in Arlington than in Seattle, and thus would not aggravate housing problems as much. He did not provide details and said it is primarily the government’s responsibility to ensure there is an adequate supply of affordable housing.
Arlington County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, a Democrat who has supported the Amazon project, said he was “pleased to see Amazon’s willingness to work together with other businesses and local community-based organizations to improve outcomes for our residents.”
Owens said Arlington was suffering from a serious housing shortage well before Amazon arrived. The county has lost nearly 90% of its affordable housing over the past 20 years.
She praised Amazon for what she said was a cooperative approach, in which the company sought to work with the foundation to determine how to put the money to best use.
“What I’m excited about is that Amazon has come at this as a true partner rather than a prescriber,” she said.
Owens described the financial arithmetic of building affordable housing to illustrate how costly it would be to have a major impact via construction subsidies.
Typically, affordable housing in Arlington is built for households with incomes of about $70,000 a year, she said. To lower the cost so the housing is affordable for households with incomes of about $35,000 a year, a subsidy of $115,000 per unit is needed, Owens said.
So, if the entire $3 million donation from Amazon were used to lower the cost of housing in that way, it would benefit 26 households.
Amazon paid no federal income tax in 2018 on $11.2 billion in profit. Asked whether the company’s $3 million donation was enough given the need for affordable housing in Arlington, Owens said, “I don’t think it would be fair to say that anybody in our community is doing enough.”
Amazon is helping George Mason and NOVA with the cloud computing degree to expand the tech talent pipeline that it views as crucial to its future growth. The two education institutions said they see high demand from students for such training.
“This is the right degree at the right time,” said Michelle Marks, vice president for Academic Innovation and New Ventures at George Mason. “We expect the cloud computing degree will be extremely popular.”
By attending the lower-priced community college for the first two years of the program, and then transferring to the four-year university, students can save about $15,000 in tuition, Marks said.
Graduates with cloud computing degrees typically get well-paying jobs. A cloud computing degree, for example, prepares graduates for Amazon Web Services certifications, and annual starting salaries of $108,000 to $138,000.
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The Washington Post’s Patricia Sullivan contributed to this article.