With Seattle Shelter Effort, Amazon Shows Glimmers of a ‘Good Neighbor’

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A former Travelodge owned by Amazon that it helped turn into a temporary refuge for homeless families in Seattle. The building is near the core of the tech company’s sprawling headquarters. Credit Evan McGlinn for The New York Times

SEATTLE — Amazon’s new urban headquarters — more than 30 office buildings and three towers that, once completed, will dominate a low-slung section of the city — are a gleaming symbol of boom times here. The tech giant has added 20,000 new jobs in Seattle and attracted other tech companies that want to rub elbows. Google plans to expand here as well, with four new buildings and perhaps 4,000 workers. Smaller start-ups dot old brick neighborhoods like Pioneer Square, and newer developments like South Lake Union, where Amazon is building.

But the surging growth has also driven up rents and home prices, fueling a homeless crisis so severe that last fall the mayor declared a state of emergency. And Amazon’s focus on its business interests and growth has made it a target of some residents and politicians, who have criticized it as an insular corporate giant uninterested in addressing the problems of its home city.

But this week Amazon stepped into a new place of civic engagement, and raised hopes, city leaders said, of much more to come.

The company, in partnership with a nonprofit group called Mary’s Place, threw open the doors of an unused building near the heart of its corporate empire, creating one of the largest homeless shelters in Seattle. The 200-bed shelter is taking shape in a former Travelodge that Amazon bought in 2014, a structure that many of the company’s employees walk by every day on their way to or from work. The first handful of families who will sleep there started arriving on Monday.

The solution is temporary. The building will be demolished next year to make way for several more company office buildings. But advocates for the homeless, and Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, said the real significance of the project, which will be managed by Mary’s Place, could not be measured in beds, or the number of months that the shelter will be open.

Rather, it’s measured in the new relationships that Amazon appears to be forging with the city it calls home.

“New companies struggle to figure out how they can be corporate good neighbors,” Mr. Murray said in an interview. “The fact that Amazon has chosen to participate in what is, among West Coast cities, the most difficult and the most controversial issue we face, sends to me a positive signal about what kind of corporate neighbor they could grow into.”

“I think it’s a very interesting place for them to take a risk,” he added.

Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities, John Schoettler, said the path to turning the old hotel into a shelter was “rather serendipitous.” The hotel closed years ago, he said, and the building was being used as college dormitory space when Amazon bought it. But when the mayor stepped up to declare a state of emergency last fall, Mr. Schoettler said, bells went off.

“We were thinking about different things that we could do with it, and we didn’t want it to just sit idle,” he said. “So we reached out to the mayor’s office.”

The area around the shelter is a building maelstrom, with five major commercial office projects and 10 residential developments with 4,657 housing units in planning or construction within a quarter-mile of the property, according to figures from the city.

But low-budget hotels still stake out part of the area, too, as do automotive shops. The Elephant Super Car Wash, with its revolving pink sign dating from an earlier era, is only a few blocks away.

Support for Amazon’s new role has been enthusiastic, especially in the realm of homeless advocacy.

“It’s an incredible collaboration,” said the executive director of Mary’s Place, Marty Hartman. She called the company’s donation “huge,” first because of the offer to make the hotel available earlier this year, and then by refitting it for its new use over the last few months, with such things as a community room and a children’s center.

Mary’s Place will also get $400,000 from the city, from a fund opened up by the mayor’s emergency declaration, to help with operating expenses. Ms. Hartman said the new shelter doubled in one day how many people her group can help.

A wish list created by Amazon, where online shoppers can donate specific items to Mary’s Place, went up last month as well, tapping into a well of generosity far beyond Amazon’s home base.

So far customers have donated items including: 37 room lamps, 49 twin mattresses,
145 boxes of diapers, 26 shower curtains and 1,080 hand and bath towels.

Isela Espinoza, 35, a medical assistant and one of the first shelter residents, said the relief it has already begun providing was immediate: She could actually sleep.

“I was sleeping in my car before that,” she said. And with her two children there with her, ages 12 and 15, she was ever on alert. “I never felt I could fall asleep because I felt like I needed to protect my children,” she said.

“It changed my way of thinking about the company,” she said about Amazon. “You hardly hear of big companies, making millions and billions of dollars, looking down to see who needs help.”

Some economists and politicians said tech companies have been unfairly blamed for negative social and housing effects on cities. Mr. Murray, for one, said the breakdown of government funding for housing and mental health treatment was driving much of the problem here, as well as in rural and suburban areas.

A housing expert at the Urban Land Institute, a Washington-based research group, said growth is always disruptive, and right now, tech is simply the visible engine of that growth in many places.

“Without question, any American city that has seen recent, significant economic growth is grappling with a housing affordability problem,” said Stockton Williams, who studies demographics and housing trends for the research group. “I can’t think of a city that is fully meeting the housing needs of all its citizens.”

Mr. Schoettler said he hoped Amazon’s commitment would extend beyond the one-year life of the shelter. He said that another property nearby could be available next spring, but that it was too soon for promises.

“I can see this going on for several years, but again that’s all dependent on our need for space,” he said.

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