The Amazon Spheres — workplace and play place for the retail giant’s employees — stand out at Sixth Avenue and Lenora Street. They’re markedly smaller than the buildings around them, and the glass shapes that form them — what Wikipedia assures are “pentagonal hexecontahedrons” — allow passersby a glimpse into a lush, verdant jungle at odds with the rest of the scenery downtown.
Just outside, a small, concrete dog park is filled with employees’ designer pups. The rest of the landscaping has no-dogs signs, with the silhouette of a corgi with a line through it.
The spheres, occasionally referred to as “Bezos’ balls” by people who would like to kick them, have come to represent everything that advocates for the displaced and the dispossessed despise: an exclusive playground for carpetbagging elite that plebeians can see but experience only on scheduled visits, much like their former homes.
This made it an appropriate setting for Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s rally to drum up support for the employee hours tax, a proposal to tax businesses to the tune of $75 million a year to pay for affordable housing and homelessness services.
Sawant and the coalition that backs the tax have framed it as a tax on Amazon, a multibillion-dollar company that manages to pay little to no federal taxes, unlike the dozens of people standing on the astroturf before her. But business groups are pushing back on this narrative, describing the proposal as an ill-considered tactic that should be dropped because it will damage the business community and hurt consumers.
As the City Council continues to solicit feedback up until the vote, scheduled for May 14, each side is going on overdrive to make its case.
The concept of asking Amazon and other large businesses for more money sits well with Gary Higuchi, an ironworker who carried a sign that read “I can’t afford to live in the city that I risk my life to build.”
Higuchi lives in Everett and travels 30 minutes to get to his job building one of the massive skyscrapers downtown and more like 90 minutes to get back home. He pointed to the building, framed by the Amazon Spheres and next to one of the infamous cranes populating Seattle’s skyline.
“I earn my paycheck, they’re not giving it to me,” Higuchi said. “The fact that I’m paying taxes on the paychecks that these corporations are paying us to build their buildings, and they’re making millions and millions of dollars, and they don’t pay a penny, I don’t see it.”
Variations on this argument — the large, profitable corporations do not pay enough to mitigate the upward pressure on prices that they cause — were at the heart of the comments of most speakers, who pointed to the rising homeless population as a symptom of the disease of capitalism.
Business groups, such as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, say that the populist stance will end up hurting everyone by raising costs throughout the economic ecosystem, and that the City Council should look to cut waste or curtail other spending to fund its affordable housing goals.
“The city has $1.2 billion a year in general fund revenues,” said Marilyn Strickland, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber. “They have to find a way to find savings and redirect existing resources into the housing issue.”
Strickland, previously the mayor of Tacoma, said that businesses pay taxes — sales tax, property tax, business and occupations tax and utility taxes.
“What we pay is nearly 60 percent, or $700 million a year, to the general fund, and people are saying that we don’t do our share,” Strickland said.
Most Seattle businesses would pay no more than $395, an annual “skin in the game” fee included in some of the versions of the proposed tax drafted by the Progressive Revenue Task Force, a group organized to analyze existing data and come forward with options for the City Council.
That’s because the task force envisioned taxing larger businesses. Those bringing in between $8 and $10 million in revenues would pay variable rates based on the number of employee hours worked on the rolls. At that level, the progressive tax would touch a minority of businesses.
Still, Strickland held, large businesses have relationships with the small businesses, and taxing one could have an impact on the other. She also believes that if such a tax is passed, it will only open the door to future charges. The employee hours tax has been floated three times. The tax passed between 2006 and 2009 at roughly $5 million per year to pay for transportation. One proposals was floated unsuccessfully at $25 million during the budget process in 2017. The current iteration is for $75 million.
Groups furthest to the left wanted a higher figure, between $75 million and $150 million.
Organizers say that people like Strickland are using the small-business community as a sort of human shield against the proposal. Artist Coalition for Equitable Development, which has been organizing around community preservation, reached out to small businesses throughout the city to explain the tax and raise support for the cause.
The chamber was invited to participate in the task force, but declined, believing that the results of the body had been predetermined. Now, they’re participating in roundtables to push a different line: That as businesses they can participate in defeating the homelessness crisis in other ways, such as providing employment.
But some people experiencing homelessness can’t work. Many not only can work, but already do. They still can’t afford housing or may have other barriers to it, such as a criminal record or eviction history. And, the task force found, to solve the crisis of affordable housing, the Puget Sound region would have to produce more than 20,000 units of deeply affordable housing in the next 10 years.
One Table, a regional body, produced a draft report — first reported by journalist Erica C. Barnett — that contemplates only 5,000 units.
American cities are facing swelling numbers of people without housing in part because of a decades-long history of underinvestment in public housing, and it will take billions to build the housing that is needed to get them inside.
The employee hours tax, if it passes, will not solve the crisis. But it might make a dent.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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