What ’60 Minutes’ didn’t say about Amazon and Seattle’s homelessness crisis

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A homeless encampment in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / John Cook)

The tent cities that spring up in the shadows of some of the world’s wealthiest tech companies landed on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night after CBS News anchor Anderson Cooper traveled to Seattle to report on its homelessness crisis.

The piece focused on people experiencing homelessness — a family of three, a database coordinator, a mail carrier — as it sought to explain why the number of people living unsheltered has spiked in cities around the country. But it didn’t dive into the unique role the tech industry plays in Seattle’s story. The report includes aerial shots of the Amazon Spheres, and mentions tech philanthropy, but it leaves out a key fight between big business and government officials that drastically changed Seattle’s housing conversation.

Microsoft has long been minting millionaires in the Seattle region but the software giant has maintained a relatively low-profile by growing in the wealthy suburb of Redmond, Wash., about 15 miles from the city. In the decade-plus since Amazon planted its headquarters in Seattle’s urban core, the company has grown to more than 50,000 employees and the region’s homelessness population has grown by more than 3,000 people.

Meanwhile, mid-sized tech companies like Expedia and Zillow, and fast-growing startups, like Rover, have been adding workers with salaries high enough to compete with the industry giants that call the region home. Amid the tech boom, housing prices have skyrocketed 60 percent over the past five years, according to “60 Minutes.”

That was the backdrop in 2018, when the Seattle City Council moved forward with a plan to tax the city’s top-grossing businesses to raise tens of millions for affordable housing and homeless services. As the company with the highest tax bill, Amazon balked at the proposal, threatening to slow growth in the city. Amazon and other Seattle businesses branded the legislation a “tax on jobs” and planned a ballot referendum that led the City Council to repeal the tax just a few weeks after unanimously passing it.

Amazon’s main headquarters campus taking shape in downtown Seattle this fall. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The so-called “head tax” became a proxy for the broader debate over Seattle’s homelessness crisis. The left-leaning City Council and its supporters believe taxing big business, and the wealthy, is the best way to raise additional revenue to fund affordable housing. Opponents of the head tax call for improving government spending efficiency, focusing on drug and mental health treatment, and empowering the police to intervene more. The latter was the position put forth in a controversial KOMO News documentary called “Seattle is Dying” that aired in March.

Related: Seattle’s socialist City Council member Kshama Sawant wants to make an example out of Amazon

Homelessness consistently ranks as one of the most important issues to Seattle voters. It was central to the Seattle City Council election last month, in which seven of the nine seats were up for grabs. Amazon made headlines by spending more than $1 million through a political action committee to support more business-friendly candidates. Many believe the move backfired, as the new City Council is poised to move even further to the left.

The re-election of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, a frequent thorn in Amazon’s side, lends weight to that theory. The business community spent more trying to unseat her than any other race. Since winning re-election, Sawant has pledged to revive the head tax.

Cooper did not interview Sawant, though she said in a tweet that she repeatedly offered to participate in the story. He did interview Ari Hoffman, a Seattle City Council candidate whose campaign focused on drug and mental health treatment for the homeless, as well as stronger law enforcement. But Dennis Culhane, a social policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Cooper the crisis ultimately comes back to housing.

“The best evidence we have is it’s the real estate market,” he said. “You have a lot of wealthier individuals especially in places like Seattle, who are driving up the price of housing, and there’s just not enough housing to filter down to the lower-income people.”

This story has been updated to note that Seattle housing prices have risen 60 percent in five years.

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