Tenants, Minority Working Class Community Fight for Housing as a Right in the Shadow of Amazon

Emile Schepers

Barcroft Apartments is a multi-unit apartment complex in Arlington Virginia, a Washington DC suburb which Amazon has chosen to be the site of its huge new HQ2 complex.  Since the initial announcement by Amazon of the choice of this community for its headquarters, local residents have been worried that the move will bring accelerated inflation of housing costs in the area whose cost of living is already high.  These worries are based on analyses by Tenants and Workers Unitedthe Urban Institute, and paint a bleak future for the possibilities that low and middle income workers, minorities and retired people on fixed incomes will be able to live in the Washington DC metro area at all. 

But Amazon and  local politicians have claimed that in fact Amazon’s operations will bring new jobs to the community and help with housing affordability by means of loans to landlordsfrom the Amazon Housing Equity Fund.  On this basis, Amazon, one of the richest corporations on planet earth, was able to negotiate a taxpayer funded subsidy for their move, to the tune of $750 million from the Virginia state government as well  assome money from Arlington County.

Now the truth of the rosy claims used by Amazon and its political enablers is being put to the test.  In April,  Amazonsubmitted to the Virginia state government a request for the first tranch of nearly $150 million to begin construction, work to be completed by 2026.  Amazon has promised to create 25,000 new jobs  in the area  by 2030.   But those jobs are projected to have average salaries of around $150,000, presumably in today’s money.   Current residents of Arlington include some well off and highly skilled people, but also many people who get by byworking in restaurant kitchens, in taking care of other families’ children, by driving for taxi companies or Uber or Lyft, or by taking care of elderly and infirm people.  There are also elderly retired people living on fixed incomes.  There are  quite a few undocumented immigrants, mostly from Central America. It does not seem probable that Amazon will be hiring such people at $150,000 per year—or at all.  Rather, the new hires will come in from elsewhere.  

Several different tenants’ rights and grassroots organizations have stepped forward to combat the negative processes that the arrival of the arrival of the Amazon HQ2 complex are already setting off.  There is a coalition, For us not Amazon, an older mostly minority organization called Tenants and Workers United(in Spanish, Inquilinos y Trabajadores Unidos)and others.  African Communities Together is organizing tenants in the mostly African American and immigrant Southern Towers complex in Alexandria, next to Arlington.   

On April 13, there was a tenants’ rights event organized by a mostly Latin American group, la Colectiva at the Barcroftapartment complex in Arlington.  Tenants gave voice to their worries about the conditions at Barcroft, including rent rises and the deterioration of tenant services.  The owners of the property, Jair Lynch Real Estate, purchased Barcroft in 2021, with funds partly coming from loans from the Amazon Housing Equity Fund and Arlington County.   The conditions of this funding would be that “affordable” rents could be calculated on the basis of 60 percent of the Area Median Income, which in Arlington is $128,145.  Annualized, this would mean that rents could go up to far more money a month than many actual residents could pay, and still be considered  “affordable” by landlords and local governments.  

La Colectiva, the ACE Collaborative (a mostly Asian-American organization) tenants and allies have formulated a set of demands that could serve as a model for housing rights groups around the country.  These demands are aimed at the Jair Lynch management and the county government.  The demands include, among others:

*Recognition of the Barcroft Tenant Group as stakeholders in  all decision making for the development of BarcroftApartments.

*A rent freeze until at least 2024 or until “legacy” tenants havethoroughly reviewed lease documents. The 3% rent increase should not be imposed on tenants making 50% or less of the Area Median Income.

*That lease documents, and other materials and information be printed or accessible electronically in other languages besides English and Spanish.

*That parking spaces for tenants be based on how many cars are owned by a household, and that parking permits be available for cars with out of state registration (parking is a big problem in Arlington)

*That tenants be allowed to pay their rent  via a variety of mechanisms other than certified checks. 

*That passports and ID from countries other than the United States and also letters from tenants’ employers be accepted for verification of identity.

*That any building in Arlington County which receives public funds should have 100% rent control, because “no one should make a profit from affordable housing funds”.

*Improvements in maintenance be greatly improved and that tenant maintenance requests be attended to more quickly.  This is a sore point with tenants, who cite problems in getting management to deal with things like rodent infestations, mold, inadequate air conditioning among other things.

These demands echo those being advanced by housing rights groups in the whole Washington DC Metro area and beyond, and even though they are up against the entrenched power of major corporations such as Amazon and private equity funds, they are becoming part of a massive grassroots campaign for the right to  truly affordable, safe and dignified housing for all.  

See more on the issue of housing as a human right here.

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