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Amazon is Holding Seattle Homeless Hostage Over a Tax That Costs Less Than Two Hours’ Revenue

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

On Monday, Seattle will decide what matters more: the safety of the thousands of people forced onto the streets because of the city’s dire lack of affordable housing, or the distaste of the world’s richest man for paying taxes.

The Seattle City Council is about to vote on the Employee Hours Tax, aka the “Amazon tax.” The tax has broad support among Seattleites—because it’s not just the most vulnerable who are at risk these days; the city’s housing crisis is so bad that nearly everyone here who’s not made of money can empathize with being pushed out: renters, young people who’d like to buy a home, even homeowners squeezed by property taxes as their house-wealth soars.

But Amazon’s response to the possibility of the tax is likely to chill relations for a long time—no one likes a bully. The company announced that it was halting construction on its “Block 18” site last Wednesday, revealing themselves as nothing but extortionists. Really, Amazon? This tax would cost the company about $25 million…according to a recent estimate, just over one quarter of one percent of its profits.

Amazon made news last year when the company pledged to host the homeless shelter Mary’s Place in one of its new Seattle buildings. With all due respect, that’s great—but services for the most vulnerable cannot depend upon the whims of corporations (or the world’s richest men). Government may be imperfect, but even conservatives agree that its area of concern is the space where the basic decency requires a measure of public oversight and shared commitment. A decent education should be available to children with or without a benefactor; no one thinks abused children should be left in the care of their abusers if Phillip Morris doesn’t provide adoption services; and even amongst conservatives, there are very few who think the elderly should have to eat cat food if Microsoft doesn’t feed them. We pay taxes in part because we agree that there’s a baseline of care that a decent society provides for its most vulnerable members.

So why does Amazon think it gets to determine exactly how it will be of service to the city? Why would a tax of even point two-six percent on profits make them start throwing their weight around?

Fundamentally, their distaste is for democracy; they’re saying we’ll choose who to help and how, it’s none of your business, Seattle. The irony is, the site where they stopped construction is the same one where they’re planning to host Mary’s Place. Remarkably, this means they’re now holding the homeless hostage in two ways at once—by threatening to not build the building where they were going to host Mary’s Place, and by saying that if Seattle taxes them even a tiny bit to provide additional housing, then maybe they’re just not into us after all.

Since the end of the economic downturn, Seattle has added 100,000 jobs, and only 32,000 housing units. That’s a big problem—it forces people out of the city (and in far too many cases, onto the street). That means pollution (carbon emissions are more than double for people living in the suburbs), congestion on the roads, and a lower quality of life for everyone.

No one, of course, thinks the answer to that ratio is to lower the number of jobs, which is exactly what Amazon is implicitly threatening to do: Don’t appreciate our contributions? We’ll find someone who does—there are plenty of fish in the sea! But while this isn’t surprising—the company is busy playing all the possible HQ2 cities against each other, too—it’s nonetheless appalling. Who do they think they are? We didn’t elect Jeff Bezos to anything, and we didn’t agree to let him decide how we as a city try to mitigate the effects of all that growth. He views Amazon as the “world’s most customer-centric company”; there’s no word on what he thinks of people when they’re engaged citizens and community members rather than just consumers, but the evidence doesn’t look good. Don’t look at the homeless person down the street: just go home and buy something. (They’ll ship it real fast!)

Solving Seattle’s housing crisis will require honesty, determination, and a big, bold vision; we have to deepen our commitment to being a city that’s accessible to teachers and construction workers as well as to software engineers, and then understand that that will mean changing zoning, giving transit preference over cars, and generally trying to build a livable, walkable city that’s ready for growth. Amazon or no Amazon, jobs and people will move here. Without enough housing, low- and middle-income people won’t be able to stay.

Most of the changes will only require imagination and heart, but there will always be a need for public funds for services to the most vulnerable. The Employee Hours Tax is an incredibly modest start—an acknowledgment that Seattle is way behind on this, and need revenue to start building now.

If we give in to bullying now, we’re well on our way to becoming a modern-day company town, where Amazon gets to decide all our priorities and how we meet them. I know a lot of Amazon workers, and none of them want that. Who does?

Maybe the guy at the top? You know, the one playing with his rockets just outside the city limits—safe from old-fashioned “customers” who think wealth comes with responsibility, and creativity and resources should be used to make the world better, not to leave it behind for Mars.

Let’s not hand him that power without a fight.

Written by Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston is a Seattle poet, essayist and activist, published also in Slate, Crosscut, The Oregonian and elsewhere. She was also a #ValveTurner during the #ShutItDown action in October 2016. Follow her on Twitter: @enjohnston.