Published April 7, 2019 in Warp & Woof
Amazon Comes to Arlington
Giddiness vs. Foreboding
The initial local reaction to Amazon’s HQ2 selection was giddiness. Our community would stand to garner a windfall estimated at $4.6B over twenty years. Bring 25,000 high paying jobs into the area, and everybody would benefit, right? Not necessarily.
I’ve lived in Arlington for 46 years, making me an “almost native.” I have no desire to leave. The community has been good to me and my kids. But I know that many are struggling here. In recent years, the public schools have been bursting at the seams with exploding enrollments. Many people who make the county a great place to live (teachers, police, firefighters, service workers) must commute from outside the county, since they can’t afford any available housing here.
How Arlington Works
Arlington’s five-member County Board is elected at large for staggered four-year terms. The chair is rotated annually among the members. They are elected by people like me. People who make the county work, but live outside it, have no say. And, although ground has yet to be broken in the new “National Landing” neighborhood (straddling the Arlington/Alexandria border) designated for the Amazon HQs, already-inflated house prices are still headed north.
The Amazon giddiness, then, comes from a promise of new wealth for the people who already live here, or of higher paying jobs for younger workers which might allow them to move here. Some local businesses will also benefit (restaurants, retail, etc.), but others (tech start-ups) see Amazon as a powerful competitor for needed talent, forcing up labor costs.
While trusting our local officials (or the less responsive General Assembly in Richmond) with the kind of commitments our county needs may be appealing to the lazy, it is not effective. All politics involves pressure. Justice requires giving voice to the voiceless. If Arlington will truly benefit from the coming of Amazon, we must begin agitating now for those commitments. It is not, as some have said, “pushing on an open door” – the challenge is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Those at Risk
While some will benefit from Amazon’s HQs, those at risk include established communities of color in the immediate vicinity, like the Arlandria neighborhood. Here, there are many small retailers, bodegas, etc. – and lower income rental housing – that are too easily sacrificed for the greater corporate good with Amazon.
Besides threatened communities in the immediate geographic vicinity, there are the already overburdened infrastructures in Arlington and Alexandria for transportation and public schools. Metro cannot keep up with track maintenance now without shutting down late night service. Increased ridership might break its back unless new commitments of revenue can be secured. It can come from Amazon’s windfall. Even Richmond, in a Dillon Rule state (where the state can override local jurisdictions on infrastructure funding), has now allowed for that. We need to make sure the local authorities follow through.
Public schools in the area expect to see even greater enrollment pressure in the coming years as new young families settle in the county with their high-paying Amazon tech jobs. Some of that revenue windfall from Amazon needs to be earmarked for teacher salaries, school-based mental health counseling, and physical plant. To ensure that happens, someone inside needs to speak for those on the outside.
It’s All on Us Now
With the collapse of the Long Island City site from Amazon’s plans, the entire HQ2 thrust will be here. Northern Virginia is not NYC. There is no organized opposition to Amazon coming as there was in the heavily unionized, politicized metropolis up there. Yes, we’re friendlier to corporate interests down here these days. And, the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington has lots of vacant office space since the federal government has largely abandoned it – ripe for refurbishing or teardown! This neighborhood and the adjoining Alexandria Potomac Yards neighborhood (still partially undeveloped) will comprise the new “National Landing.”
While there may be no organized opposition, there are many interested organizations supporting guarantees from the Arlington County Board, the Alexandria mayor and city council, and the local delegations to the General Assembly, of new affordable housing units – changing some NIMBYs to YIMBYs. There should be scholarship funds created for local students to attend the promised higher education expansion in the area from VT and GMU. Metro must accelerate its track maintenance efforts.
Statewide, there will be blood bath elections this November, with implications for Richmond’s role in Amazon’s plans. Both the House of Delegates and Senate are up for grabs. Tight races dominate in both houses. Community organizing needs to extend to these races, even if it means reaching outside the immediate NoVa region.
VOICE and the Faith-based Sector
Among the interested parties with some experience in mobilizing community strengths for local political action are faith-based groups like VOICE in Northern Virginia (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement). VOICE is currently planning a June 2 forum with Christian Dorsey, the chair of the Arlington County Board, and Mayor Justin Wilson of Alexandria. VOICE’s power comes from its ability to bring people together from many different faith traditions to engage local political leaders and win commitments from them (moral AND material). By the time of the June 2 forum, there will be specific requests prepared – numbers, percentages, timelines. This is the VOICE way. Expect hundreds of attendees from the nearly 50 different congregations represented – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, both white and non-white, citizen and non-voting immigrant, rich and poor.
All the faith traditions represented share a common theology regarding social justice: there is an important divide between power with and power over. Power withis what community organizing is all about – it is power close to God. Power overis the flip side, and what social justice movements are always trying to counteract.