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ALEXANDRIA, VA.- The first employees of Amazon’s new headquarters in Virginia haven’t arrived yet, but a largely Hispanic working-class neighborhood just two miles from where the company’s offices will be located, is already feeling the impact. Some residents have been told their monthly rents will increase so much they are considering leaving altogether.
"About a month ago they told us that the rent would be more expensive, $200 more. It’s an unreasonable increase," complains Rosa, a Salvadoran woman who has lived in the neighborhood known as Arlandria or Chirilagua for 10 years. Chirilagua is made up of simple apartment complexes and Latino businesses and shops. So far, she and her husband paid $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment where they both live with their daughter.
Rosa doesn’t have a job outside their home because she has to take care of their daughter. The girl gets sick often and, with the money her husband makes installing carpets, they barely have enough to pay rent, food and bills.
They are trying to convince the building managers not to raise their rent too much, so they can stay. “They (the residents) say that it’s because of Amazon that the rent will go up, but they (the managers) don’t tell us why,” she said.
Like her, most residents of Chirilagua are Central American and, although some were happy to learn that the e-commerce giant was going to settle in the area with the promise of creating 25,000 high-paying jobs in the next 10 years, others now fear that the new higher-paid workers will end up driving them out of a neighborhood where most have lived for more than 30 years.
Driving up prices, harassing residents
"We knew that because of Amazon’s arrival announcement and, because local governments don’t have a housing program for low-income households, it was going to have a big impact,” Evelin Urrutia, director of Tenants and Workers United, a community-based organization in Chirilagua, told Univision in an interview.
In fact, Amazon hasn’t physically settled in Arlington yet. A spokeswoman for the company told Univision Noticias that the first workers will arrive this June, but she did not give details about how many will be moving there or when they will start working.
What Amazon has announced is how modern their facilities will be and how they will invest $2,500 million in them. Their website shows about 100 open positions for their headquarters in Virginia, mainly for system and financial engineers, among other positions that require higher education.
Although the company has said through press releases that it wants to help the community surrounding the new headquarters by hiring local talent for well-paid jobs (earning an average of $150,000 a year), the members of Tenants and Workers United do not believe that Amazon will offer many jobs to the people of Chirilagua. According to data from the 2000 Census, 57 percent of the population there had not received education higher than a high school diploma.
“I ask politicians whenever I can: ‘Do you think that with the skills our people have, we can get $150,000, or what kind of jobs are we going to get?’”, Urrutia asks. “It doesn’t matter if they create 5,000 jobs for our cleaning community. Where will we live if we don’t have affordable housing?”
In the last couple of months, dozens of neighbors have come to Urrutia’s office worried about their rent increases. But the most serious case they have identified so far is Rosa’s building. The rent increase announcement from the housing complex managers came with harassment toward Hispanic residents. “They verbally mistreated them for not speaking English and even the handyman made fun of them,” Urrutia said.
“The current manager, who has been in charge for two months, started mistreating us because we are Latino,” Rosa said. “We no longer feel comfortable. She says only Hispanic pigs live here, and when we go to her office, she uses air freshener as if we smelled,” she added.
The Tenants and Workers United organization is working with the building management to improve the situation for Hispanic residents and to try to stop the eviction of families who cannot afford to pay such a high rent increase.
But Urrutia believes that this is just the beginning of a long struggle to prevent gentrification in a neighborhood with a uniqueness that stems from the thousands of Central American migrants who came to this area of Arlington County since the 1980s.
“The high rental costs will be a method they will use to displace and evict families from this area and it’s something that is already being done,” Urrutia said. According to data from her organization, many three- and four-member-households in the neighborhood do not earn more than $28,000 a year. They live on jobs like janitorial services in offices and government buildings, masonry work or working in restaurants.
The aim: preventing gentrification
During a tour of Chirilagua, the community organization director said she had seen areas where low-income Hispanic people are already starting to be displaced.
“We visited every apartment complex and we saw where the white community is arriving. They are single, with their dogs ... and what are the landlords doing? They are installing dryers and washers, they are refurbishing them and raising the rent and that prevents (the current neighbors) from renewing their contracts,” she explained.
Interest in the area is also apparent in the increase in purchase offers for commercial premises. In recent months it has become less and less unusual for real estate agents to drop by to assess the market and even make purchase offers, something that did not happen before.
The increase in real estate prices is happening throughout Northern Virginia. According to a report from Realtor.com, since Amazon announced it had selected Arlington for its second national headquarters, home sales in the county soared by 50 percent from the previous year.
On top of that, the number of properties in the market fell 40 percent, a trend the real estate website attributes to the fact that potential sellers may be waiting for the new company workers to arrive, so prices rise due to the increasing demand.
The gentrification Amazon may generate worries many area residents. They fear that Arlington will experience what happened to Seattle, where the company is headquartered, and where many middle-class families were driven out by the increase in housing prices.
That’s why, when the Arlington commission voted to approve $23 million in incentives for Amazon last March, county board chairman Christian Dorsey acknowledged the need to “respond where displacement pressures occur and to encourage and invest in growing the housing supply to meet expected demand, and to reduce current unaffordability”. He didn’t give details though, of how they would do so.
In the meantime, Alexandria and Arlington announced their plan to invest $150 million in affordable housing in the next decade. But what Chirilagua residents are asking is to not be evicted from the low-cost housing where they live. They are now starting to organize through meetings in the community center.
“I think Hispanics here are going to disappear”
For some neighborhood residents like Dina Martínez, the struggle for decent housing is not new. When she arrived in Virginia fleeing war in El Salvador in the mid-1980s, this retired 70-year-old woman became part of a group of residents demonstrating against a company that wanted to evict working families to build luxury apartments.
Every night when she arrived from her work cleaning hotels, Martínez joined the protests. She knocked on doors to inform the neighbors and even participated in occupying city hall. These actions not only managed to stop the urban project but also prompted the city to give them a loan to create a housing cooperative that enabled them to build hundreds of low-cost apartments.
Salvadorans shaped the neighborhood’s nature so much that the area known as Arlandria (because it’s where Arlington and Alexandria meet) became known as Chirilagua, named after the town in southern El Salvador from where many of its residents arrived in the ‘80s.
But now, Martínez fears that low-income residents like her will not be able to handle the price increases brought on by Amazon’s arrival and that they will have to leave the houses they fought for in the ‘80s.
“I think Amazon wants to drive us out because they have money and we don’t have anything,” she complains. “Only low-income people live here. And where would we go? I’m not working any longer and my pension is not enough. I think Hispanics here are going to disappear.”
“Most of the people who live here are Latino,” her daughter Ena said. “And many, when they can’t pay the rent, start looking for cheaper places because now everything is going up and this is the only place with low-cost housing.”
Martínez’s daughter, who works in a company that promotes healthy lifestyle habits, also complains that while the neighborhood residents, mostly low-income workers (in some cases undocumented) pay their taxes, large companies like Amazon get tax breaks.
“They become billionaires and don’t pay taxes. How come a multi-billion dollar company doesn’t pay taxes and the people who live here, who are working, have to pay taxes? It’s not fair,” Ena said.
But mother and daughter say they are willing to continue fighting so authorities help the members of the community remain in their homes. The Tenants and Workers United Center is leading this effort, what its founder sees as a ‘David and Goliath’ battle.
“In New York, when they announced (that Amazon had chosen them as its headquarters) the people and the politicians stood up against it. The only thing I thought was: How can we preserve our community?,” Evelin Urrutia said, recalling that in Virginia most local politicians favored the digital giant settling in the state.
“We didn’t want to fall out with the powers that be, in this case the government and Amazon. I think I never hoped we could stop it, I just hope we can get something good for our people,” she added.