7 On Your Side Investigates examines the "Amazon Effect"

SEATTLE, Washington (WABC) -- As Amazon abandoned plans to open a new headquarters in New York City, employing at least 25,000 people and developing at least 4 million square feet of commercial real estate in Long Island City in exchange for roughly $3 billion in tax breaks, Seattle officials commended New York City for demanding corporate accountability.

"No one wins when there is a race to the bottom when there is a hunger games-like approach to getting jobs," said Seattle Council Member Teresa Mosqueda.

Mosqueda and her Seattle colleagues have experienced the impacts both positive and negative that a mega company can have on a city, and so, '7 On Your Side Investigates' traveled to Seattle to see those impacts better known as the "Amazon Effect" firsthand.

Amazon consolidated its headquarters in the northwest city, in a neighborhood known as South Lake Union, over a decade ago with around 4,000 employees.

Over a decade later, the company employs more than 45,000 people.

Amazon's success enticed other companies like Google, Expedia, and Zillow to expand in Seattle joining longtime anchors like Microsoft and Boeing.

The growth spurred more growth seemingly changing Seattle's skyline overnight.

A time-lapse created using photos taken over three years from a camera at the Space Needle shows the transformation.

For multiple years in a row, Seattle has led the nation in construction cranes making it one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

"I mean the whole city has changed," said Michael Orbino, a Seattle area resident and managing broker for Compass, a large real estate company. "It's been a wild ride."

Orbino said his business has flourished from the growth propelled by Amazon.

"My career is growing at the same time, the same pace as Amazon," Orbino said. "I get to be a beneficiary of that."

Orbino described a real estate market hot with bidding wars for increasingly pricey homes. He also described a lack of inventory to meet the growing demand.

There are many people like Orbino, whose industries have benefited immensely from the growth.

For others, keeping up has been difficult.

"The wealth disparity is probably as extreme as it has ever been in my lifetime," Orbino said. "It's tough. It's almost impossible to keep up."

According to the Downtown Seattle Association's '2019 State of Downtown Report' the city averaged roughly 30 new jobs a day from 2010 through 2018.

Housing costs also climbed faster than in any other U-S city according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.

Home and rental values combined climbed over 50% according to data from Zillow and homelessness also increased at a similar pace according to data from the King County Commission on Homelessness.

"We just weren't ready as a city to absorb that level of job growth," said Jon Scholes, President, and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. "As a city, we sort of have a self-inflicted wound."

Seattle had an affordable housing crisis.

Even when new apartment construction stabilized rents, working families and young professionals struggled to find anything they could afford to buy.

Seattle resident Eric El is among those people who have struggled to find an affordable place to buy.

"It feels like you are never going to get there," El said.

Another Seattle resident, Cliff Alexander, had to leave the city where he grew up for a town about an hour away.

"We were basically priced out of the Central District," Alexander said. "It's nuts."

"Everything has gotten so expensive," said Aaron Terrazas, A senior economist for Zillow. "It (Seattle) has not added the units we are going to need in the next five to ten years."

"I don't know that there was a way to have predicted it," said Mosqueda, who's made adding affordable housing in the city a top priority. "We needed to act 10, 20 years ago to create different density options, different housing options that were affordable for working families."

Seattle has begun adding more housing units.

This month, Orbino listed one of the first affordable condo options in the city to be developed in years.

"It's not just having the latest and greatest community but, 'Who is going to buy these? And who can afford these?' And really being thoughtful about that," Orbino said.

El jumped at the opportunity to make an offer on one of those condos. They've been selling about as fast as Orbino can list them.

"It feels good," El said. "It's exciting.

It's a start for Seattle but for some longtime residents like Alexander, it's too little too late.

"I know a lot of other families have already lost everything," Alexander said.

Seattle officials said the city is growing into its new size and working on solutions to its housing shortage, but they also said the city's experience should be a lesson to other cities to make plans for the growth, to allow for affordable housing, to create greater transit options and put a focus on schools, ahead of Amazon's arrival.

Amazon's impact has clearly been positive for Seattle's growth but also challenging in many ways.

With the deal in Long Island City now dead, New York won't face either scenario.

It loses the opportunity for immense growth but also avoids the inevitable and tough cost of living questions that Seattle has faced.

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