South Arlington's Diverse Residents Worry About Amazon HQ2-Induced Displacement

Thursday, December 13, 2018
Jake Bittle
Curbed (Washington D.C.)

When Amazon announced last month that it plans to open one of its two new corporate hubs in Crystal City, Virginia elected officials were exuberant. Gov. Ralph Northam called the company’s decision “a big win” for the state, and Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol said it affirmed the county’s commitment to various priorities: “sustainability, transit-oriented development, affordable housing, and diversity.” The swath of Northern Virginia where Amazon is set to move even got a new, unofficial name—“National Landing”— heralding its future.

Local community members have since expressed more-mixed reactions to the news. Among them are longtime tenants and business owners in South Arlington, a multiethnic area south of U.S. Route 50 that is less than than two miles from the tech behemoth’s prospective home. Some told Curbed in recent interviews that they fear the new Amazon campus will accelerate rising housing costs, though they also hope it will spur equitable investment. A smaller number said they were unaware that Amazon’s offices would open so close to where they live.

In the minds of many Virginians, South Arlington has long stood in contrast to the north side of the county and the affluent, largely white communities that live along Metro’s Orange Line. The south side has remained an enclave for Salvadoran, Bolivian, and Thai immigrants as well as African-American families whose roots there stretch back decades. (Arlington Public Schools students collectively speak more than 100 languages, according to the county.)

The neighborhoods of South Arlington are less dense and more car-oriented than their northern counterparts, but their commercial corridors still teem with foot traffic during the day. Here, strip malls serve as de facto town squares: Vendors wheel food carts around parking lots, while dozens of commuters wait for buses and chat. In the Barcroft neighborhood, the back of one particular laundromat doubles as a bar and pool hall.

“HQ2,” as Seattle-based Amazon dubbed its corporate expansion, could be a turning point for South Arlington’s development and demographics. Currently, the median rent in the area is about $1,500 a month, as compared with more than $2,000 a month in North Arlington, data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for Arlington, but the prices are already very high,” says Fidel Gracias, who rents a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and children along Columbia Pike, the main thoroughfare connecting several South Arlington neighborhoods. “We need more—more housing, more businesses—and it could bring that here.”

Initial projections suggest that it will. A study released by the Virginia Chamber Foundation last week found that through 2030, HQ2 will result in more than $70 billion in new spending in the state and nearly twice the number of new jobs in Arlington County than that anticipated without Amazon. (The latter estimate does not account for “indirect and induced jobs” that would stem from HQ2, and is therefore “conservative,” the study notes.) The company has promised to deliver 25,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in investment to both Virginia and New York, with the other half of HQ2 to occupy Long Island City.

Despite these bullish targets, some urban policy experts say South Arlington may see adverse effects from HQ2, such as an increase in income inequality and gentrification. Seattle, which is one of the fastest-growing major cities in the country, saw a significant jump in its cost of living after Amazon’s existing headquarters opened there.

“You’d expect the biggest impacts of Amazon to be in easy commuting distance, and South Arlington is a prime target for that,” says Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “A lot of these neighborhoods are likely to be pretty vulnerable because they have a lot of older apartment buildings, garden apartments, and older single-family houses that aren’t in great shape.”

Schuetz added that neighborhoods along Columbia Pike have what experts call “naturally occurring” affordable housing—units that are inexpensive but unsubsidized. She said rents are prone to “start going up everywhere within a couple of miles of the new headquarters,” but acknowledged that long-term real estate trends are hard to predict.

Along with her colleagues Nicole Bateman and Martha Ross, Schuetz authored a blog post last week that warned that Amazon’s arrival “could exacerbate economic disparities” in surrounding low-income communities, including those in South Arlington and Alexandria. The researchers wrote that in both Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, the incomes of black, Hispanic, and Asian households are much lower than those of white households. “Changes in the supply of affordable housing could have racially disparate impacts,” the authors concluded.

Today, South Arlington features some of the largest, closest-in, and cheapest pockets of rental housing near Crystal City. But its residents have felt increased displacement pressures over the past few years, with Columbia Pike targeted for redevelopment. (The corridor is not served by a Metro line, although it does boast several bus routes.)

There have been visible changes. One new mixed-use project is being built on the former site of Food Star, an expansive international grocery store that was a popular gathering spot for many residents. And nearby, at least two more mixed-use projects are slated to go up in the next few years: one about a mile to the east, the other about half a mile to the west.

Walter Tejada, a past chair of the Arlington County Board who has lived in Arlington for more than 25 years, says the risk of gentrification has been growing for some time and will only intensify due to HQ2. In the late 1990s, Tejada helped organize low-income tenants in the Arna Valley neighborhood who were fighting an influx of luxury development. But the developers won out and more than 3,000 tenants left the community, foreshadowing a surge in housing prices that has continued into the 21st century.

“We’re victims of our own success—people want to come and live here,” says Tejada, who adds that diversity is “critical” to Arlington County. “But now that Amazon is in our midst, that turns the spotlight back on affordable housing. That’s going to require political will. We’re going to have to be stronger, and more creative, in making sure that we don’t become a community that only the wealthy can live in.”

In the wake of the HQ2 announcement, residents along Columbia Pike seemed divided about whether that commitment would materialize. A woman named Rosa who works at a currency exchange on the thoroughfare and asked that she not be identified by her last name said some of her customers are already struggling to afford the vicinity. “More people will shop in this area, hopefully,” she said of HQ2’s advent. “But people are definitely going to be pushed out. There’s a lot of people who can’t take that much more of an increase.”

Others were just beginning to reckon with what the future has in store. Selam Worku works at the Ayana Ethiopian Market on Columbia Pike. She said that while she had heard Amazon was planning to select Virginia for its headquarters, she had not realized the site was just a few miles down the road.

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