Politics

Congress Lauds Amazon HQ2, But Staffers Worry About Making Rent

An influx of wealth could magnify the city’s housing problems, with big implications for the Hill

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, center, is pictured in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Amazon received a warm reception on Capitol Hill when it announced a new major outpost in the Washington area, with senators lauding the online retail giant’s entry just across the Potomac. But privately, some congressional staffers fume that “HQ2” will further escalate rents.

Congressional staffers have already been crushed by stagnating wages and climbing housing costs. And they worry Amazon’s new headquarters will mean they’ll have to allocate a larger chunk of their paycheck to their landlords. Some have taken up second jobs, and anticipate tough decisions about the future.

“I know that if I want to make a career in D.C., I won’t be able to work on the Hill. I love my job. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. But I feel like there’s an expiration date if I want other life goals like home ownership, getting married and having kids,” said a junior House staffer who declined to be named in order to speak candidly about his salary.

“Amazon is only going to exacerbate problems that are already here,” he continued.

The company announced that the 25,000 employees at its new headquarters will earn an average of more than $150,000 per year — roughly double what a mid-level staffer earns on the Hill.

Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both Democrats, applaudedthe new jobs as an economic boon.

But that new squeeze on the housing market could accelerate the revolving door between congressional work and K Street, according to Meredith McGehee, strategic advisor to the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

Congressional offices often experience heavy turnover as young staffers age out of living with roommates to split the rent. Instead, many staffers “get their card punched” with two to three years of congressional work before moving on to a more lucrative job and a family in the suburbs. As a result, young staffers with less experience have to tussle with older, more seasoned lobbyists.

“I’ve seen lobbyists run circles around aides in their mid-20s,” McGehee said.

McGehee lived in a “roach-infested apartment with poor heat” when she worked on the Hill in the 1980s, but said she estimates she would not be able to purchase a home there now even on her current salary.

Of course, while Hill staffers could be priced out of some neighborhoods, they are not the population most at risk for displacement, according to experts in affordable housing and poverty.

Rejane Frederick, associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, said congressional staff are sheltered from the full brunt of higher housing costs in part by benefits including defrayed transportation expenses and health insurance.

Frederick, who watched her “decidedly Southeast” neighborhood become “reclaimed” as a part of Capitol Hill as gentrification intensified when she worked as a Hill staffer a few years ago, said she will be looking to more vulnerable workers as Amazon moves in.

“This to me is the true bellwether. The people who tend to the Capitol grounds and the surrounding environments, who drive the buses that congressional staffers take to work everyday, how are they faring?”

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