Amazon volunteers on Amazon's Day 1 Playfield in Seattle

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy and local employees gathered at Amazon’s Day 1 Playfield in Seattle to volunteer with Clean the World to build and deliver more than 90,000 hygiene kits to organizations that support disaster relief efforts around the world. (Photo courtesy of Amazon) 

In the Pacific Northwest, you’ve heard of Amazon: founded in Bellevue in 1994, the company is a major employer in this region, and synonymous worldwide with online shopping and cloud computing. But it’s also working to build community and address persistent problems in King County and beyond: homelessness, housing affordability and food insecurity.

“Our community engagement is built around leveraging our scale for good to help strengthen local communities,” explained Jared Axelrod, who oversees public policy and community engagement in the Puget Sound region for Amazon. “That means combining our strengths with those of community partners and finding creative solutions that have a lasting impact.”

This begins with a customer-centered approach. Rather than parachuting in and reinventing the wheel, the company starts by listening to the community, including policymakers, nonprofits, and community leaders. Through their key input, Amazon crafts policies and programs that directly address what’s needed in the community, regardless of where it may be.

“Each region is different, and each region has its own challenges. In Seattle, we've heard consistent needs to support homelessness, food insecurity, arts, and education programs to enrich the community,” said Taylor Hoang, who leads community engagement in Seattle.

The walkway to a modern apartment complex

The entryway to Track 66, one of the affordable housing communities in SRM Development’s Blueprint Portfolio. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

One of Amazon’s flagship programs aimed at addressing these needs is the Amazon Future Engineer Program. The program increases access to computer science education for students in underserved and underrepresented communities. “It’s a program that’s nationwide, but here in Seattle, we have supported students with scholarships every year, bringing STEM education to the community,” said Hoang.

The company has also made key investments in education and transit, through on-the-ground partners like Seattle’s Alliance for Education, which is currently using a $1.7 million gift from Amazon to provide support for Puget Sound students. Amazon also advocated for the Move Ahead Washington transportation package, a $17 billion initiative that, over 16 years, will reduce carbon emissions in the state and fund transportation infrastructure.

Amazon has also made direct investments in the King County Metro bus system, funding additional service on routes that serve downtown Seattle. On the East Side, Amazon’s initiatives include a $7.5 million investment in the development of Eastrail through Bellevue, and the first phase of the Grand Connection Crossing project, a bridge for non-motorized transit that will cross from downtown Bellevue to the Wilburton neighborhood on the east side of I-405.

In addition to transit and education, Amazon is also working to address the state’s housing crisis, through the development of local housing programs and support for state-level legislation promoting housing around transit hubs. “We are using our position as a large employer to support innovative housing affordability initiatives,” said Axelrod. “While we feel that only governments at the local, state, and federal level have the capacity to implement more effective housing policies, we believe that the public and private sectors can [also] work together to address this challenge.”

Amazon employees trim a bush at local parks

Amazon employees from across the Puget Sound region volunteered as part of Amazon’s Seattle Day of Service, cleaning up local parks in anticipation of warmer weather. (Photo courtesy of Amazon) 

Among these company’s programs is the Housing Equity Fund, which launched in January 2021. With the primary objective of combatting the affordable housing crisis, Amazon pledged $2 billion to build affordable housing in the company’s headquarters regions, Puget Sound among them. Their goal is to support the development or preservation of 20,000 units of affordable housing. So far they've committed $549 million in funding to help create or preserve 5,500 affordable homes, said Alice Shobe, global director of Amazon in the Community, an initiative that builds resources and support for Amazon-hub communities.

The Housing Equity Fund prioritizes “missing middle” housing, multi-family units constructed to scale appropriately among single-family homes. It also prioritizes affordable housing choices for essential employees like teachers and health care workers, and supports new construction of homes as well as the preservation of existing housing.

Among these projects is the Blueprint portfolio, which consists of 354 housing units across six buildings in Greater Seattle located strategically close to public transportation; Amazon has formed an alliance to help a private developer and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle purchase the properties. The homes will be made available to Washingtonians whose incomes range from 40 to 80% of the median.

Whether focused on transit or housing, these partnerships and programs connect the community to needed funding and have a direct impact on King County residents’ wellbeing.

The outside shot of apartment complexes in Renton with second-story balconies

 The Renton Sage Apartments, an affordable housing community in Renton, WA. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)

“One thing that we were really clear about is community organizations, they know what their communities need, right? And they've been working in the community for a long time,” said Shobe. “And so… if we can support them to do that and enable them to do it in ways that they either weren’t able to… or accelerate the speed at which they’re doing it, we’re going to be better off as a community.”

The Housing Equity Fund also fosters diversity and inclusion in real estate development through an accelerator program for developers of color. “We saw some inequities in who is building housing [and] who’s owning it,” said Shobe. “And so then we [developed] a program to support leaders of color from the private sector or nonprofit sector to do more real estate development.”

The two-year accelerator program is aimed at supporting minority-led nonprofits and businesses developing affordable housing in the Puget Sound region. It aims to create opportunities for community leaders who may not have had as much access to the real estate industry historically. “We help pair [participants] both with resources and people that could actually help them and advise them,” said Shobe.

Program participants also receive funding for pre-development expenses for which it can be difficult to secure outside funding, like hiring architects. “I do think that the Housing Equity Fund, just as a contributor to the region as a whole, is something that… we feel really has made a big difference,” said Shobe. “Just in the number of units we’ve been able to fund, how quickly we’ve been able to move, the number of organizations we’ve been able to work with, and then ultimately the number of people that are housed that may not have been.”

That push for equity and community wellbeing is the animating principle behind the company’s longterm vision for the area where it was first founded and is still headquartered. “I think that really drives a lot of our work, both from the advocacy side as well as from the community engagement side,” said Hoang. “Our North star has always been to ensure that Amazon shows up as a trusted corporate partner in the communities where our customers and employees live. And that means it requires us to build trust with our community and meet people where they are.”

These efforts also include broadening access to local arts offerings, by distributing free Bumbershoot tickets to underserved communities, and essential services for underserved youth and families, through support of organizations like Wellspring Family Services and Southwest Youth and Family Services.

“We are constantly striving to do better and more each day, and that means partnering with trusted community partners in Seattle to understand the unique challenges and opportunities our communities face and investing in the causes that matter most to our employees and customers here,” said Hoang.