My New Amazon Shopping Cart: Affordable Housing, Better Schools, Trains and Workers’ Rights

Sateesh Nori. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid.

Sateesh Nori. Photo courtesy of Legal Aid.

By Sateesh Nori

Special to the Eagle

Amazon will be on the East River. As New Yorkers, we first rejoiced that we beat out dozens of other, lesser cities in the HQ2 sweepstakes. As reality sets in, we must ask whether this was the greatest giveaway since the Dutch stole Manhattan Island.

Amazon is one of the wealthiest companies in history, with a recent market capitalization of one trillion dollars. Yet, as reported, New York state is offering as much as one and a half billion dollars in tax breaks on Amazon’s promise that it will create 25,000 new jobs in the city. This is in contrast to the 750 million dollars that Virginia is offering for 25,000 Amazon jobs in Crystal City. While these new jobs may benefit the city, Amazon settling in Queens will be a test of basic New York values: diversity, equality of opportunity and fairness.

First, Long Island City is the home of the Queensbridge Houses, the largest and one of the most vulnerable public housing projects in the country. Queensbridge is operated by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), an agency with a mandate to house the most needy, but one that has recently been beset by a lead paint reporting scandal and which may be placed under federal oversight. What will become of Queensbridge and its tenants, many of whom receive public assistance, when Amazon begins its rapid redevelopment of the neighborhood? If San Francisco is to be an example of tech-driven planning, there may be a parallel universe for Amazon and its people in which there are safer, better maintained apartments, transportation systems and schools. The poor tenants of the Queensbridge Houses may be further left behind under a panacea of development which is in fact inaccessible to them. In essence, rapid gentrification and a wider income gap will come delivered in a cardboard box with a smile on it.

Second is the critical issue of infrastructure. Queens has picked the short straw too often when city resources have been allocated. Although the airports are in Queens, anyone who has been on the 7 train during rush hour appreciates the inadequacy of the transit system in Queens: there is not enough and it doesn’t reach enough of the borough. Much of Queens has no subway system at all. Areas of Queens like Far Rockaway are economically isolated and proved to be particularly vulnerable to events like Hurricane Sandy. Will Amazon’s move to Long Island City draw out the outer rings of Queens and connect them to jobs and opportunities? Or will Long Island City be turned into an Atlantis, an island unreachable.

Third, Amazon should aim to improve public schools in Queens. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has already committed millions to supporting Montessori education nationwide. But he should realize that unless Amazon commits to supporting public education in its HQ2s, the creation of parallel private schools, day care and youth programs for Amazon’s employees and their children will further inequality between the local residents and the Amazonians.

Fourth, in its short history, Amazon has never been a friend of organized labor. We have all read about Amazon’s fulfillment centers and their horrible working conditions, low pay and inflexible shifts. Amazon has also taken aggressive steps to prevent its workers from organizing. In many ways, this is anathema to New York, the locus of the labor movement, where organized labor is part of the foundation of our schools, transit system and government. Will Amazon respect the traditions of labor in New York City and adapt its employment practices accordingly? Or will Amazon’s culture be a virus that infects New York City and results in diminishing protections for workers?

In sum, as we walk down the aisle with Amazon, New Yorkers must protect the values that made New York attractive to Amazon as a location: diversity, equality of opportunity and fairness. If we don’t, we’re just another puddle in a rainforest.

Sateesh Nori is the Attorney-in-Charge of the Queens Civil Practice at the Legal Aid Society.