Housing Crisis or Economic Boom?

Ally McAlpine/Fourth Estate

The Fuller Institute and New Virginia Majority release contradictory reports


For some, Amazon’s upcoming move to Northern Virginia is welcome and a decision that would greatly benefit both the region and the state as a whole. However, to Jon Liss, co-director of the activist nonprofit New Virginia Majority, it is a change that would have a significant negative impact on the region.

“There may be a low-level sort of drive for this to happen,” Liss said. “[If] you want to use an analogy or metaphor, you would say, ‘There may be a small little light fire,’ and instead of trying to address the concern about lack of affordable housing, you are effectively giving all this money and encouraging Amazon to rapidly move into an area. You are essentially pouring gasoline on those balmy embers of fire and snuffing out a whole neighborhood.”

Liss is co-author of a recent report, “Amazon HQ2’s ‘National Landing’ Project: A Critical Assessment,” published through the New Virginia Majority Feb. 11.

In it, he describes the effect that Amazon would have on the area, which includes mass displacement of a major Latinx community and bringing added traffic to an area that already has plenty of commuters.

However, the analysis largely contradicts a report written by the Stephen S. Fuller Institute—an institute affiliated with Mason. The head and namesake of the organization, Stephen Fuller, is both a university professor specializing in public policy as well as the Dwight C. Schar endowed faculty chair in the Schar School of Policy and Government.

The report, written by Fuller as well as Jeannette Chapman, deputy director and senior research associate at the Fuller Institute, argued that overall, Amazon’s move would be advantageous for the entire state, not only Northern Virginia.

It was funded by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and includes the projection that the move would grow Arlington’s gross county product by $52.8 billion and Virginia’s gross state product by $748.8 billion within 20 years.

“It’s … net fiscal and economic impact,” Chapman said about the report’s forecast. “So what that means is that … at least in the fiscal terms, we looked at both the tax revenue that would be generated but also the tax expenditures that would be needed as part of that. So schools are the big ones there.”

“Fiscal” refers to the tax base of the area, while “economic” is how the broader economy is tied to the gross regional product.

“Developers who are motivated to make more money are going to create condos or knock down buildings or build more expensive buildings,” Liss said. “One way or the other, they’re going to displace … our estimate is at least 3,000 households, maybe more, and it would disproportionately affect people of color, particularly the unique Latinx community of Chirilagua or Arlandria.”

The New Virginia Majority argues that Chirilagua or Arlandria in particular is going to be destroyed by Amazon’s move into the region.

“There’s nowhere else that I’ve seen, it’s sort of both a residential community as well as a business district and … cultural, sports, music, all that … in a very … concentrated [demographic] area,” Liss said. “I think it’s fairly unique in Virginia.”

When asked whether the community would be able to fully rebuild, Liss responded, “Very unlikely. You can’t move a community en masse like that. It would be very difficult. People would be scattered to the wind and we’ll be searching for ways to rebuild [the] community, but it’s difficult to do.”

Chapman, who also worked on a report for Arlington’s Affordable Housing Study, stated that there are several different factors that affect where one wishes to live, not just the commute time from home to work.

“The preferences that determine your quality of life do vary based on your household type,” she said.

Chapman continued, “If you’re living alone versus if you are married with another worker in the house, whether you have children … all the other things that we kind of already covered, which is again why people typically disperse a little bit more than they would if commute was the only thing that they were considering.”

Liss considered the institute’s research to be misleading, not telling the full facts of the story. Included in their report was the Fuller Institute’s research, with a map showing the areas where Amazon workers would live.

“Essentially, Fuller’s piece was a, ‘Don’t worry. It’ll all be fine. This is just a market working. People … move in all the time. People will be pushed out all the time. Don’t worry about it,’ and they’ll end up living pretty much at the same ratios as they currently live, in terms of Crystal City residents, the new ones [who] be scattered regionally,” Liss said.

“And there will be nominal impact in any one jurisdiction or any particular community, so it was a really ‘don’t worry’ sort of piece, and we consider that a very unrealistic and rosy sort of perspective, that it was being used by proponents of the Amazon subsidy location deal to say there really aren’t negative effects there, let’s just get them in, it’s all good.”

Chapman said that the institute’s report was mostly about commuting and transportation issues. She thought that the assumptions they used in their report were “not quite the right assumptions to be making.”

Liss’ report has been shared with several stakeholders in the project, including legislators who are interested in lessening the effect that Amazon’s arrival would have on the area. His goal is to ensure that either Amazon does not come to the region, or if the company does, that there is a plan in place to support those in the communities that will be most affected—including Chirilagua.

Liss explained, “Ideally, if you look at, given the scale of what they’re talking about, it’s probably about $150 million of money needed for mitigation, for coming up with a housing plan that actually preserves this unique community and the housings of … 3,000 families, that is, not just people.”

He continued,  “And so the state has those kinds of resources, the county of Arlington, the city of Alexandria and private philanthropy, et cetera—there are those kinds of resources.”

Liss went on to describe that the most desperate need for housing is coming from everyday workers.

“Yes, most jurisdictions—Alexandria, similarly to Arlington and Fairfax—they all talk about workforce housing, which ends up being for government, public sector workers,” Liss continued.

“Firefighters, police officers, teachers—they all deserve housing, but the real crisis, the real need is at the lower end, people who get up every day, go to work and then can’t figure out how to pay the bills to stay in their apartment.”