Seattle’s Gilded Age: Housing for Trees, but not for People

by Jonathan Rosenblum

Rubi moved to Seattle last year, arriving after a long road journey from southern California. She immediately found secure housing that met all of her needs.

Rubi had it easier than the 1,000 people who move to our city every week and are blown away by skyrocketing rents. She didn’t have to worry about finding a safe place nightly, like the 8,500 people who are living on the streets, under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in RVs, and in shelters. And she didn’t share the anxiety of the 100,000 Seattleites whose crushing rents are forcing them to forgo basic necessities of life.

How did Rubi luck out?

Rubi is a tree. She’s a 49-foot Ficus Rubiginosa to be more precise, brought here by Amazon, given a cute moniker and her own video, and provided a comfortable home inside the company’s ostentatious new crystalline Spheres.

Today Amazon controls one-quarter of all downtown Seattle office space, dominating our community. It’s a staggeringly rich company whose CEO is worth more than $100 billion.

As Amazon developed its $4 billion headquarters footprint, executives dreamt up the eye-popping crystalline biosphere – three interlocking glass globes that today house Rubi, tree house meeting rooms, waterfalls, a suspension bridge, and 40,000 trees and plants from more than 50 different countries.

The Spheres stand today as a totem of our new Gilded Age – stunning, elegant, temperature-controlled palaces for plants while nearby thousands of people shiver under makeshift plastic and canvass tents and record numbers of people die on our streets. This is the priority-setting of a sick, immoral elite.

The Amazon executives who have no problem spending untold millions of dollars assembling a global collection of plants and trees emphatically deny that their privilege brings with it a social obligation to our community. They’re wrong.

Amazon is on its way to employing 55,000 people in Seattle in the next two years – more than double its global employment just 8 years ago.

This huge boom, of course, skews housing costs for all of us, not just Amazon employees. Zillow estimates that the jobs boom in and around Amazon HQ was responsible in the first half of this decade for $44/month additional rent on a typical Seattle one-bedroom apartment. The cost of housing has only gotten worse in the latter half of this decade, as Amazon doubled its Seattle employment, biotech and other industries boomed, and global real estate profiteers like Starwood Capital Group, Blackstone, and Harrison Street Real Estate went on a multi-billion-dollar house-buying spree in Seattle and other hot markets.

In the last five years, average Seattle apartment rents have shot up 36%, to $2,100/month. Median home prices are a stratospheric $741,000, up 21% just over the last 12 months.

Establishment politicians have been positively effusive about Amazon’s growth. But they’ve ignored the basic fact that you can’t have this kind of job expansion without building a lot more housing, or you push working people, students, and the elderly out of Seattle, tearing apart the social fabric of the community.

That’s precisely what’s happening to the janitors who clean Amazon’s buildings, the bus drivers who transport tech workers, the healthcare workers who care for them, the construction workers who build the gleaming new office towers, the retirees on fixed incomes, the college students hoping to land a job in tech, the city parks department workers who tend plants and trees less pampered than Rubi – they all have to live somewhere; not in some indistinct future, but today. And as politicians fail to face up to the scope of the problem, these working-class people – who build and sustain the city – are being economically evicted from Seattle.

This is not some sort of abstract “market force” at work beyond the reach of us mortals. It’s the product of rapid corporate growth coupled with a political unwillingness to hold CEOs accountable for the social costs of their business decisions.

Back in late 2016, after Donald Trump was elected, Seattle politicians loudly declared that ours would be a sanctuary city, protecting immigrants and refugees from the federal government’s xenophobic bullying. But what about economic sanctuary from the ravages of a housing market that is driven by Amazon, big money developers, and speculators? What good is calling yourself a sanctuary city if the people you claim to want to protect can’t even afford to live in the area – and are forced to commute from cities where they are vulnerable to the depredations of immigration police?

New Mayor Jenny Durkan has fully embraced the obligatory call by self-proclaimed Seattle progressive political leaders for more affordable housing. But most of her oratory has been reserved for housing monies that the voters or City Council already approved before she took office.

What’s needed is a lot more funding to build affordable housing. And this is where the mayor and political establishment are utterly failing.

By the admission of the city’s own Progressive Revenue Task Force, the city needs, conservatively speaking, $5.1 billion to meet immediate housing needs. That’s actually not enough, because it only takes into account the very lowest income people, and not all rent-burdened households, according to the Housing for All coalition.

Where will these billions come from?

At last month’s Tax Amazon Town Hall, Real Change Founding Director Tim Harris pointed out the obvious answer. Harris recalled to the packed hall the legend that when Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he retorted, “because that’s where the money is.”

Indeed, a company whose executives can build crystalline homes for exotic plants from around the world, a company that paid no federal taxes in 2017 on $5.6 billion in US profits (and will reap a $789 million windfall due to last December’s Trump tax cut), can afford to pay its fair share so the city can build housing for workers, our elders, and students.

That is the social debt that Amazon owes the community for being permitted to set up shop and take over parts of our city.

Last fall, the majority on City Council defeated a modest effort to tax the biggest businesses in the city – an employee head tax, or EHT – to fund affordable housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

Now, the city’s Progressive Revenue Task Force has recommended raising $75 million annually through an EHT – half of the $150 million that the housing movement has been calling for. But the mayor’s balking at even that modest level. Small wonder, given that Amazon gave $350,000 to elect her last year – its biggest local political contribution ever.

The clash will come to a head in the next few weeks, as housing advocates rally to demand accountability for Amazon and other big businesses. There’s a Tax Amazon to Build Affordable Housing rally next Tuesday outside The Spheres (I’m involved in organizing the action as a staff person for Councilmember Kshama Sawant).

To win, a broad housing movement encompassing unions, community, and faith allies must force the political establishment to do what it is loathe to – hold Amazon and other big businesses socially accountable.

The question for city leaders is not just about the politics and economics of taxing the rich to pay for housing. It’s at its most basic a moral question: Do the people who live in our community deserve any less right to housing than a 49-foot tree named Rubi?

Jonathan Rosenblum is a writer and union and community organizer in Seattle. He is the author of Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017), and is a member of the National Writers Union/UAW 1981. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathan4212.

Featured image Alex Garland

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