Metropolis

Do New Yorkers Even Want Amazon’s 25,000 Jobs?

Even in prosperous times, the city is getting harder to live in—and it’s not clear how HQ2 will help.

A crowd of anti-Amazon protesters, one holding a "Scamazon" sign.
A protest against the Amazon HQ2 decision in Long Island City, New York, on Nov. 14.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

It was equal thirds politicians, protesters, and reporters gathered at the cold Wednesday morning rally on the edge of the desolate warehouse district selected as the future New York headquarters of Amazon. Passing truck drivers honked in support. The crowd was small, but the message was clear: New York’s elected officials were not pleased with the deal that Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo had struck to bring the Seattle-based e-commerce company to Queens.

“We should be investing in housing and hot water, not headquarters. We should be investing in academics, not in Amazon,” said Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake.

“We’re here to put a stop to it. We’re not giving up until we scuttle this deal, scrap it, and start the conversation all over again,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris.

Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents this part of Queens on the New York City Council, led the crowd in a call and response: “Do we want Amazon?” “No!” “Do we want Amazon?” “No!”

How times change. Last year, Blake, Gianaris, and Van Bramer—as well as City Council members Costa Constantinides and Stephen Levin and then–City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, all of whom also spoke at the rally—signed a letter urging Jeff Bezos to bring his company to Long Island City. “Our tradition of reinvention matches yours, and we invite you to join us in writing our next chapters together,” the letter read. The dogs had caught the car.

Of course, there is much to dislike in the deal that de Blasio and Cuomo brokered with Amazon: The $1.7 billion in subsidies the state offered the company, in addition to nearly a billion more in as-of-right city tax breaks. It’s an ugly new float in the long parade of offers that New York pols, always underestimating the city’s value, have made to companies who were never going elsewhere.

But Wednesday’s press conference was a more full-throated riposte to Tuesday’s announcement. Not to Amazon’s bad record on labor relations, its preening and dishonest HQ2 contest, or evident intent to destroy the city’s small business backbone—all that was known last year. And not to the subsidies, which, while they eclipsed those given to the company in Virginia, were actually below the normal Cuomo-era outlays for job creation that New York Democrats have until now tolerated without a peep.

The real concern seemed to be the very idea of 25,000 high-paying jobs in western Queens. After months holed up with their economic development advisers, Cuomo and de Blasio had barely bothered to make a case for what—beyond the job-creation, growth-is-good platitudes that always characterize political speech—is in this for New Yorkers who won’t work at Amazon. “One of the biggest companies on earth next to the biggest public housing development in the United States,” the mayor noted. “The synergy is going to be extraordinary.” Why would that be the case? Because Amazon had committed to biannual résumé workshops in Queensbridge? Would they be naming their conference rooms after songs from Illmatic?

The widespread skepticism about a company hiring for a bunch of well-paid positions in the country’s financial capital is in a way a sign of how well New York City is doing right now—and in another, of how deeply broken it is.

First, the good news: New York City is on its longest run of private-sector job growth since World War II. The unemployment rate is as low as it has ever been; the population is as high as it’s ever been; the share of the city’s population born outside the U.S. is at its highest level in 100 years. In many ways, New York has never been more itself. So you can see why there’s a widespread sense of disgust at the way leaders have groveled before Jeff Bezos. Amazon needs us more than we need Amazon.

But there are benefits, too, to a new corporate campus: $27 billion for the city and state in tax revenue; a spike in white-collar tech jobs that will in the good times drive up wages across the city and in the bad serve as a hedge for a budget that is 20 percent income taxes. Tax revenue doesn’t account for the spillover effects of highly paid workers buying local goods and services, competing for the dry cleaner, the therapist, the cabbie, and the empanada lady. The University of California, Berkeley, geographer Enrico Moretti has concluded that each new high-tech job ultimately creates five more outside the tech industry in the long run. A surge in job openings ought to give workers more power.

On paper, no city is better prepared to handle the negative externalities of that growth better than New York City. Amazon is building on top of two underutilized train lines (the G and the LIRR), pulling commuters out of Manhattan against peak flow in a neighborhood that since 2010 has added more than 12,000 apartments—with 9,000 more in the pipeline. What might have been a city-changing event in Detroit is predicted to have minimal impact here, in part because the company will likely hire most of its employees from the metro-area talent pool of more than 300,000 tech workers. The rental site Apartment List predicts a rent increase in New York City of 0.1 percent—$1 on a $1,000 rent. Seattle’s company-town predicament is not a convincing precedent; Queens alone has three times more people.

Now the bad news: Neglect, disinterest, and a lack of ambition from the city and state have allowed a transportation crisis to emerge on the subway and on the street. Zoning and other regulations in the city and (especially) its suburbs have constrained housing production to the point that homebuying is far out of reach for most New Yorkers. Meanwhile, the state has allowed tenant protections to languish, the city’s public housing is in a state of scandalous disrepair, homelessness is at an all-time high, and landlords have misbehaved with impunity. Some research suggests that while new high-income jobs do in general boost everyone’s prospects, that effect drops off rapidly in places with tight housing markets.

So two forces greet the possibility of Amazon in New York—and I think would, whether it was subsidized or not. Born of the good times, there’s a sense that the city doesn’t need it. And born of the bad, a sense that we don’t want it.

This is not how a functioning city is supposed to respond to a big new office. It’s in some ways symbolic of the troubled American economy at large, in which nominal good news (Dow 26,000!) is meaningless to an underclass increasingly without stakes (half the country has no money in the stock market). But it’s also a very particular indictment of New York’s prolonged state of housing insecurity, in which any good thing, from a bike lane to a grocery store to a corporate headquarters, is seen first and foremost as an excuse for a landlord to kick out a tenant. To paraphrase a saying from Staten Island: Rent rules everything around me.

This is where it fell to de Blasio and Cuomo to make a deal that accounted for that reality—to show not what we’re doing for Amazon, but what Amazon is doing for us. “Jobs” isn’t the magic word they think it is. Jobs for whom?

State Sen. Gianaris and his compatriots should absolutely drive the hardest bargain they can. Get Amazon to repair Queensbridge. Or extend the tram to Queens. Or commit to local hiring. Show New Yorkers what they’re getting out of the world’s richest man’s company. But I’m not sure any infrastructure would buy Amazon the sense of being wanted in New York City.