Catherine Buell has lost count of just how many meetings she’s had with governments and organizations based in one of Amazon’s three major metropolitan hubs about one underlying topic: affordable housing.
“In just emails alone, it’s hundreds,” she said about the contacts she made. “Quite frankly, we’ve accepted most invitations to be able to come and talk to groups.”
As head of community development charged with executing Amazon.com Inc.’s $2 billion Housing Equity Fund, there is quite a bit to talk about. Buell, a Greater Washington native and veteran of the affordable housing world, joined the tech giant in June and started speaking to nonprofits and developers almost immediately across Seattle, Nashville and, of course, the D.C. region. Those conversations are helping her shape the company’s strategy on the fund, which is focused on providing below-market loans and grants and works to partner with public agencies and seek out minority-led groups as part of the effort.
“There are so many great affordable housing projects out there, but part of what we are looking to do with the Housing Equity Fund is identify opportunities that have scalable models that we can work through quickly,” she said.
Speed is indeed key. In January, the company announced a target of 20,000 new or preserved units across those three metro areas within five years. Some organizations seeking financial support from Amazon said they’re under the impression that housing preservation proposals have an edge over new construction, according to sources close to the discussions who asked not to be identified because those talks were considered confidential.
Buell, who is soliciting information via email, told the Washington Business Journal that both types of projects are necessary to solve the D.C. region’s housing gap, and Amazon is interested in all ideas.
“I anticipate it will be a mixed bag. To start, we are focused on preservation,” she said. “There are not a lot of tools in the market to be able to preserve affordability of existing properties or even help mission-driven organizations to acquire properties that are coming onto the market. That is something we were particularly concerned about.”
A solid case study for an Amazon investment
Buell is reluctant to “dictate” to others on what to present to Amazon. She said the company is looking for creative approaches but said it wouldn’t hurt for those seeking funds to take a cue from its marquee investment thus far: $380 million in mostly loans and some grants to the Washington Housing Conservancy, which allowed the latter to buy the 828-unit Crystal House in Arlington. The purchase allows WHC to maintain affordability for 75% of the units for 99 years and potentially build hundreds more units on vacant land nearby.
It has many of the hallmarks Amazon is seeking, Buell said — an organization with “big vision,” targeting “naturally occurring” affordable housing or units in the path of economic development, a promise of long-term affordability that can be replicated.
“We wanted to not only support their project, but also acknowledge that our support will hopefully allow them to scale up in a significant way — that it’s not just a one-off,” she said. “We are asking a lot of questions about how we can get that long-term affordability, not just a 15- to 20-year commitment.”
Each of Amazon’s three hubs poses a unique housing challenge. But understanding new markets is, in a way, second nature to Buell, whose experience in developing affordable housing includes a stint as executive director of St. Elizabeths East, which last year delivered new low-cost rental units. Later, she served as CEO of the Atlanta Housing Authority before returning to D.C. as a policy expert at the Greater Washington Partnership. She cites her work on a 2011 campaign to get restaurant-cum-bookstore Busboys and Poets to open an Anacostia location as impetus to shift from her then-attorney job toward directly helping residents.
“My work at Patton Boggs didn’t have that tie into people,” she said. “What I found while being in historic Anacostia is that it can take a small group of people to make a big influence. Seeing how creativity can make a difference inspired me to think maybe this was something I could do full time.”
A great need for private sector help
Amazon’s previous housing efforts in this region were often smaller, stemming from Seattle-based leadership or the economic development team behind its new headquarters in Arlington, some of whom didn’t remain in the region after that was cemented. In contrast, Buell grew up in Silver Spring and continues to be based locally. Her mother even had a 40-year career in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Katie Cristol, Arlington County Board vice chair, likens Amazon’s previous efforts to a down payment of sorts, and part of a longer listening tour. She said she did discuss with Amazon in 2019 a number of affordable projects where the company’s funding could have closed the gap, but she added that the new fund does seem to indicate that Amazon is much more attuned to the need. Buell is currently in talks with the county’s Housing Arlington program, said Cristol, who said she was told the D.C. region doesn’t just get slotted in the back of the line after its Crystal House investment.
“The sophistication of the partnership with Washington Housing Conservancy really indicates that they heard what we were saying in Arlington,” Cristol said.
Buell said there’s potential to partner with public agencies as it considers public schools, libraries and transportation agencies, such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Some of those parties have hoped Amazon could fund new construction, such as a multifamily complex, on Metro parking lots.
“Without giving out too many specifics, we do see nontraditional public agencies as being real partners,” Buell said. “What’s interesting is a lot of them have been poking around about how they can support affordable housing initiatives, whether it is through their land, like WMATA, which has significant excess land that they can develop or through commercial use.”
But she acknowledges that even a $2 billion pledge can appear small in the face of Greater Washington’s housing needs. None of the local counties or cities have met their own housing targets, according to an analysis by the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers. Buell said local governments are primarily responsible for local housing needs and maintain the power, through public housing vouchers and zoning policy, to make needed changes.
“However, it can’t alone resolve the challenge, otherwise it would have already,” Buell said. “There is a world for the private sector. We are leaning into that role. I will say, we do hope that other corporations will follow. Some are doing great work.”
Source: Biz Journals