For Queens residents, Amazon’s HQ2 isn’t arriving without a fight

For Queens residents, Amazon’s HQ2 isn’t arriving without a fight

Syed Rahman is caught in the middle. The Vanderbilt University freshman from Long Island City, Queens, has long dreamed of a job in the tech industry, but the public housing projects in his neighborhood convinced him that the only way to make it is to find a job in the so-called “Silicon Alleys” of Manhattan.

That was until Amazon announced plans to build one of its HQ2 corporate campuses in his hometown just five blocks from the Queensbridge Houses near where he grew up. According to city agreements, the office, located along the Anable Basin, could reach up to 8 million square feet in the most ambitious scenarios, which is roughly the capacity of four Empire State Buildings. The move is expected to bring 40,000 jobs with an average wage of $150,000 annually, putting young job seekers like Rahman in a desirable position.

But while he’s allured by the possibilities, Rahman feels concerned for his less-privileged neighbors. Since 2010, a construction boom has changed the face of Long Island City (LIC). Western Queens, once home to artist communities and a graveyard of abandoned factories, now has its own skyline that’s dotted by high-rise apartments and commercial developments that have attracted residents priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Mom-and-pop shops have slowly disappeared, and the cost of living is steadily rising. It’s an ongoing problem that Rahman fears will be exacerbated when the sudden influx of high-salaried Amazon employees enters a neighborhood that’s also home to the largest public housing developments in North America.

Amazon’s HQ2 site in Long Island City. Image: Amazon

“Between Queensbridge and LIC, there exists a tale of two cities,” Rahman says of the contrast between the housing projects and the newly developed high rises with “an average rent of $3,500 for a two-bedroom apartment” a walking distance apart. Despite pricey rents, higher-income people have begun moving into Long Island City because of larger living spaces compared to similarly priced apartments in adjacent boroughs. And then there’s transportation: the convenient proximity to LaGuardia Airport, access to four subway stations, and a ferry stop that connects LIC to Manhattan and Brooklyn not only draw residents to western Queens, but they’re also why Amazon has chosen to build its HQ2 there.

Long Island City’s population is growing fast, paving the way for even pricier housing costs. Between 2010 and 2016, LIC has seen a population growth of about 11 percent, which is more than double the rate of all of New York City, according to the American Community Survey. (The waterfront strip along Vernon Boulevard alone has nearly doubled its population from roughly 3,400 residents to 6,700.) A study last year found that LIC has outpaced the rest of the United States for new housing developments, and a local neighborhood development organization found that the area is on pace to grow from 80,000 residents to over 100,000 in the next three years.

Meanwhile, the income gap is continuing to widen: the median household income at Queensbridge Houses to the north is $15,000, compared to $133,000 of those in the high-rise apartments south of Hunters Point. Both those locations are within a 5-block radius of Amazon’s HQ2.

a tale of two cities

These alarming figures are some of the reasons why many have protested Amazon’s move, noting that a sudden spike in high-income residents will negatively impact middle-class and low-income families that have long occupied the area. The deal, which local community leaders and politicians felt was done in secret and without their involvement, took officials like Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens) by surprise. “It was completely out of the blue,” he says, adding that “corporate welfare” doesn’t truly generate wealth for working and middle-class families. Kim, who represents Flushing, pointed to emails he received from Seattle the day the deal was announced. “The gap between the have and the have-nots has only increased after Amazon settled into part of Seattle, only inflating housing prices and hurting middle class families. The same thing is going to happen here.”

The Amazon deal

Amazon is opening two new headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, New York, and Arlington, Virginia NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio bypassed the official land review process and community input Amazon will build a campus between 4 million to 8 million square feet in Long Island City and occupy 1 million square feet at nearby One Court Square during construction It’s estimated to create 25,000 to 40,000 jobs over the next decade, with an average salary of $150,000 The retail giant will receive a total of $2.988 billion in public funds, or $48,000 per job In return, the company will reel in $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over the next 25 years The number also includes 1,300 construction jobs While the deal is public, the memorandum is a non-binding agreement, allowing for wiggle room for protesters and local politicians to get involved The plan may still need approval from the Public Authorities Control Board that oversees capital grants

Some local businesses are enthusiastic about Amazon’s move as they anticipate increased sales. Restaurateurs say they plan to hire more staff and expand hours as they anticipate a daytime bump from Amazon workers who will occupy a nearby office building in Court Square as the campus is being built. The influx of people has already proven prosperous for business over the years, says Bobby Patel, who runs a deli three blocks away from HQ2.

“When we first opened in 2001, we’d get a lot of customers in the morning, and I’d close by mid-afternoon,” he says. After a high school opened across the street in 2003, Patel was able to keep the store operating until early evening, and even later as more people moved into the neighborhood. “Nowadays this area is safe at night, and I can open late so more people can come to my shop.”

Lena Afridi, the director of economic development policy at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, is less certain about the move’s positive impact on Long Island City. Rather than creating affordable housing and solving the city’s crumbling infrastructure, she feels Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have chosen to invest in something that will instead further price out local residents. “Along the 7 line, it’s already so intensely crowded. The sheer number of people in Queens is [unprecedented], and the infrastructure that is there hasn’t been kept up,” says Afridi.

At a press conference addressing Amazon HQ2 last week, Mayor de Blasio says he’s still committed to affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers. But instead of fixing the Queensbridge Houses, which reported a heating outage the day after the Amazon announcement, de Blasio this week announced plans to renovate 62,000 apartments throughout the Bronx and Brooklyn. To anti-Amazon protestors like Afridi, this is just the first step to displacing local families in need.

“People from Queens and people from New York in general should not have to trade in their jobs and homes for basic infrastructure like good transit and good schools,” she says. “The immigrants, the people of color, the working people who have made Queens what it is shouldn’t have to negotiate their quality of life.”

The plan also feels like a betrayal of the progressive values that de Blasio and Cuomo campaigned upon, says Renata Pumarol, deputy director for New York Communities for Change, a coalition of working-class families that’s committed to social justice. “People are outraged,” she says. Pumarol dismisses the idea that Amazon will boost job creation in neighborhoods that need them most since many of the HQ2 jobs will be white collar, and few are likely to go to people of color. “Warehouse jobs may predominantly go to low-income, people of color, but those are jobs where workers are working under terrible conditions. We’ve heard stories of people having to pee in a cup.”

Photo by Natt Garun / The Verge

Amazon is promising to invest in the community and develop a local workforce beyond blue-collar jobs. In addition to building a waterfront esplanade adjoining several acres of public open space, it also plans to host semi-annual job fairs and resume workshops at Queensbridge Houses starting in 2020. Amazon is also expected to open a job training center run by partners like Pursuit, a nonprofit organization that provides software engineering courses to underprivileged New Yorkers. Initially started as Coalition for Queens, Pursuit co-founder and CEO Jukay Hsu has worked with local residents for the past seven years, with graduates going from an average annual income of $18,000 to $85,000 after 10 months of intensive training.

This is an opportunity for Queens to become a model of how to hire and invest in a tech workforce that’s truly inclusive

The opportunity to work with Amazon, Hsu says, allows his organization to secure meaningful jobs for New York’s most vulnerable communities. “Our role is to make sure that these opportunities are truly inclusive.”

Pursuit currently works with companies like Blue Apron to pilot programs that train factory workers for engineering jobs. For Queens, Hsu says this could be an opportunity to create a model for the rest of the tech industry by creating a workforce that is inclusive of gender, socioeconomic backgrounds, race, and religious beliefs. Pursuit’s current class of 144 is a 50 percent split between male and female fellows, 50 percent immigrants, 60 percent black or Hispanic, and the majority are on public assistance. He hopes to be able to develop a program that’s scalable for Amazon.

“This is an opportunity to uplift the community not only for meaningful, sustainable wages but to make sure startups in the area that are playing a role in this are able to ensure the communities benefit from it,” Hsu says.

Still, a pilot program may not be an immediate enough solution for at-risk residents. Pursuit’s full-time courses require 80-plus hours of work in and out of classrooms over a period of 10 months. And after landing a job, graduates are expected to pay 12 percent of their new annual income above $60,000 to Pursuit for three years. (It is unclear whether Amazon plans to implement a similar payback structure at its job training center.) It’s a noble effort, but it may take too long for vulnerable communities to partake in it before they are priced out of the neighborhood.

Although Amazon will likely accelerate gentrification in Long Island City, professor and senior research scholar at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management, Alain Bertaud, says the move will force New York City officials to come to terms with its poor infrastructure and be motivated to reform the transit system.

“People with very useful jobs like school teachers and firefighters will have more and more difficulty finding housing in New York. They will have longer commutes from New Jersey or surrounding areas,” he tells The Verge. Still, he says, “these problems are not a reason to reject Amazon.”

“We should address these problems in parallel,” insists Bertaud. “Amazon is coming, so we need to reform.”

Ultimately, it’s up to community members and politicians responsible for the deal to hold Amazon accountable for what it promised the city. Urban Studies theorist Richard Florida says the main issue won’t be the dollar amount of the subsidy, but how much political pressure is put on Amazon in the years to come. “My hope is that through pressure, through community activism, we can turn this into an example of how it should be done,” Florida told The Verge. “But the only way that happens is if the community, the local council people, the local activists, and the mayor’s office all keep the pressure on.”

As the fight in Long Island City continues, computer science student Rahman is trying to stay hopeful. He sees the overwhelmingly mixed responses as representative of Queens and its diversity of people, thoughts, and opinions. “Hopefully, it springs economic activity into the parts of Queens that don’t currently get a lot of attention,” he says. He notes that perhaps interest in the borough will eventually span beyond the booming western waterfront, helping to evenly spread the wealth in a place where white-collar Amazon workers and the far less fortunate will soon bump shoulders.