How Amazon’s HQ2 may both bring growth and imperil Pittsburgh’s talent pool

Panelists at a Wednesday forum regarding Amazon HQ2: (left to right) Waverly Duck, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies Program; William Generett, Jr., Duquesne University’s vice president for community engagement; Rebecca Bagley, vice chancellor for economic partnerships at the University of Pittsburgh; Beth Shaaban, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health and an organizer with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee; and Jason Beery, (not pictured) a policy analyst at UrbanKind Institute. (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

Panelists at a Wednesday forum regarding Amazon HQ2: (left to right) Waverly Duck, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies Program; William Generett, Jr., Duquesne University’s vice president for community engagement; Rebecca Bagley, vice chancellor for economic partnerships at the University of Pittsburgh; Beth Shaaban, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health and an organizer with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee; and Jason Beery, (not pictured) a policy analyst at UrbanKind Institute. (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

When Amazon announced it was looking for a home for its second headquarters, the corporation included a wish list. Their desires included a city with diversity and with great universities churning out talented graduates who could be the next generation of Amazon employees.

At a forum on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus Wednesday, concerns were raised about how Amazon and some of the variables on its wish list could coexist.

Could graduate students afford to live in a Pittsburgh with Amazon-inflated rents?

Would a city that already has a diversity problem be helped or harmed by a corporation whose leadership is dominated by white men?

Co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Human Rights Project, UrbanKind Institute and the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies Program, the Wednesday forum was the first of two panels discussing Amazon’s potential arrival. About 50 faculty, students and community members gathered in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health.

About 50 faculty, students and community members gathered in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health to discuss Amazon HQ2. (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

Several panelists expressed concerns about Amazon’s promise of 50,000 high-paying jobs created over 17 years—with salaries averaging $100,000—and the effect that may have on the affordability of Pittsburgh’s housing.

Jason Beery, a former Pitt faculty member and senior research and policy analyst at UrbanKind Institute, cited statistics from The Seattle Times that showed in June  2017, the median house price in Seattle was $729,000, up nearly 14 percent from the previous year. Seattle rents rose 57 percent between 2011 and 2017, equating to about a $630 increase in rent per month. That made the new average rent in 2018 $1749 a month, according to the Seattle Times.

Jason Beery, a former Pitt faculty member and senior research and policy analyst at UrbanKind Institute, cited statistics about rising rent and real estate prices in Seattle, where Amazon has its original headquarters. (Photo by Juliette Rihl/PublicSource)

“That, of course, has strong implications for the demographic and spatial transformation of the city,” Beery said.

Beth Shaaban, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health and an organizer with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, focused on how Amazon’s arrival may adversely affect students, particularly graduate students. With graduate students already being paid low wages—averaging about $17,500 annually—an increase in rent prices could cause them to either have to take out additional loans, or continue moving farther away from campus.

Despite its lack of affordable housing, it was noted that Pittsburgh does have the capacity to house Amazon and all of its employees. Pittsburgh once had a population of 700,000, but now only holds roughly 300,000 people.

Yet, while there may be room for Amazon’s employees, many are concerned about who those employees will be. It’s no secret that white men dominate the tech industry, with Amazon being no exception. Amazon’s 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity report  found that of executive and senior managers and officials at Amazon, 78 percent are male, and 93 percent are white.

“The farther you go up the ladder at Amazon, the more male and whiter it becomes,” said Beery, noting that Pittsburgh already struggles with this problem. “The people in positions of power in the city are predominantly white men, and they have been for years.”

Several in attendance favored the idea of striking a community benefits agreement with Amazon  as one way to mitigate potential harmful effects of HQ2. A community benefits agreement, or CBA, is a contract signed by stakeholders of a community development project — usually community groups and a developer—that requires the developer to guarantee specific amenities to the affected community. The group who gathered Wednesday proposed that an Amazon CBA could include a hiring program to target low-income individuals, increased affordable housing and additional funding for transportation.

University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Jules Lobel, who attended the forum, is a member of the newly formed Community Power Movement, a group that believes power should be moved from Harrisburg into the hands of communities. The group is creating a petition with two main points: that the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County immediately release the entire Amazon bid to the public, and that a CBA be required any time the city or county give out public subsidies to entice a corporation to move here. “Particularly, there should be an agreement that the corporation, such as Amazon, not increase racial, gender and class inequality,” Lobel said.  

Despite a ruling by Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records that both Allegheny County and Gov. Tom Wolf’s Office must release Pittsburgh’s Amazon proposal, the document has not been made public and officials have indicated they would continue to fight its release.

Panelists differed in their opinions about the approach Amazon has taken to solicit proposals from cities, the move that sparked a national wave of speculation and local governments racing to stand out.

“I was sort of disturbed by this request for proposals for a lot of cities that are really struggling to try to figure out what they’re going to do with their economy,” said Waverly Duck, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies Program.

Others felt that, by requesting proposals, Amazon prompted necessary dialogue.

“I think Amazon has done us an incredible service by raising the community conversation, allowing us to have it and making some urgency behind it,” said Rebecca Bagley, vice chancellor for economic partnerships at the University of Pittsburgh. “These things are being worked on, but they’re being worked on in the absence, sometimes, of these larger community conversations.”

One thing the panelists seemed to agree on is that no matter Amazon’s final decision, growth is coming to Pittsburgh. “We have to grow.  We have to grow.  Period,” said William Generett, Jr., Duquesne University’s vice president for community engagement. “Either you’re growing or you’re dying, as a city.”

This looming growth makes it necessary to keep community discussions alive.

“If it’s not Amazon,” he said, “it will be somebody else.”  

Juliette Rihl is freelance writer and Coro Pittsburgh fellow. She can be reached at julietterihl@gmail.com.