Will Amazon’s new outpost in Queens make things worse for New Yorkers who currently live in the neighborhood? In 2015, Abt Associates published a report of our independent research, commissioned by the Office of the Mayor of New York, on how neighborhood changes affect public housing residents. Because the pace of gentrification was rapidly speeding up in Long Island City (presaging Amazon’s interest in the neighborhood), we had a special focus on the neighborhood around the New York City Housing Administration’s (NYCHA) Queensbridge Houses, Amazon’s future neighbor.
Through community-based participatory research, we found that residents had mixed feelings about how their neighborhood had changed. While they appreciated improvements to public safety, they were already beginning to feel displaced in their own neighborhood. Research we conducted with Queensbridge residents in 2017 echoed these findings: New public amenities were put in place only after higher-income neighbors arrived and some--notably new bike paths and bike share rentals--crowded out public housing parking spaces (to the annoyance of public housing residents). As a result, the public housing residents’ perception was that these amenities were “not meant for them.”
Additionally, NYCHA residents noted how mom and pop shops were closing throughout the neighborhood and prices for retail items such as groceries were beginning to rise out of reach. In the face of the scale of change that Amazon’s HQ2 will bring to Queensbridge’s neighborhood, our results seem both prescient and quaint.
But, zooming out to look at data covering all public housing projects in the city, we found that gains in neighborhood income deliver benefits to public housing residents in the aggregate. Two-thirds of NYCHA residents live in public housing developments where the surrounding neighbors have relatively high incomes (above the city median). Neighborhoods in which that dynamic has existed for multiple decades have lower violent crime rates, and are zoned for public schools with higher average achievement measures. Adults in public housing in these neighborhoods had higher average incomes and their children performed better in school as compared to NYCHA residents in developments next to lower-income neighborhoods, with public housing providing permanently affordable housing.
So, the potential for both disenfranchisement and empowerment is real; the trick will be to navigate to the latter, and that can be done if Amazon starts planning now.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon has offered an initial $5 million investment in local workforce development and will host job fairs in NYCHA housing. And the Times has reported that Amazon promised it was interested in hiring local talent from neighbors like LaGuardia Community College and Queens College. Following up on these promises means Amazon will tap into a larger pool of qualified talent, which will be good for its reputation locally and beyond. More importantly, doing so can help them diversify in ways that the tech industry desperately needs, both for its culture and for developing products and experiences that work for people across a broad range of situations/experiences. And for employees—and future candidates--that value the company’s corporate citizenship, demonstrating goodwill and a commitment to keeping its word will mean a lot.
Based on our research about implementing city-provided broadband in Queensbridge, we suggest there be an outreach team from HQ2 to Queensbridge residents that could proactively hear additional resident concerns and suggestions and share information from Amazon to neighbors. Genuine listening, proactive outreach and follow-through on promises could build bridges with Queensbridge residents who have for many years been over-promised and under-delivered.
Amazon could, for example, convene a community advisory board that incorporates local elected officials, neighborhood residents --with an emphasis on NYCHA and other low-income residents--and other community leaders. We suggest that any such board have multiple dedicated seats for Queensbridge residents. The board could bring before it matters of interest including design and development of the HQ2 site, Amazon’s contribution to neighborhood amenities that will be broadly beneficial, strategies to make Amazon welcoming and inclusive for neighbors, and ways to offset quality of life challenges associated with HQ2.
To structure proactive actions like these by the state, City and Amazon, a community benefits agreement (CBA) could be a useful vehicle. Ensuring that any CBA has a clear legal framework with enforceable deadlines and goals is critical. . Lacking a legal structure for an enforceable CBA, we fear that benefits to Amazon’s new neighborhoods (likely lower crime, increased and improved employment opportunities, and improved schools) could be outweighed by day-to-day experiences of higher costs of living and an exacerbated “tale of two cities” feeling.
Inclusive outreach and planning to be a good neighbor might lessen the dissonance felt by NYCHA residents looking out their windows at gleaming new, expensive, wealth-generating buildings while waiting on hold with 311 again about the moldy ceiling and broken elevators, and provide some much-appreciated return on the $1.7 billion that the city and state have provided to win HQ2.