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Amazon HQ2, Equity and the Power of Community Voice

A few months after selecting Long Island City as one of two locations for its second headquarters, Amazon announced that it was pulling out of the deal estimated to bring thousands of new tech jobs to the Queens neighborhood. In its blog post explaining the decision, Amazon argued that “While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.”

But is this the full story? To what extent were relationships built with community members, and their desires, included in the proposal and negotiations to bring Amazon to Long Island City? And what does this “opportunity” to bring new development and jobs teach us about equity and the necessity of inclusive decision-making processes, especially in cities where gentrification is rapidly remaking urban areas into places where low-income residents and communities of color can no longer afford to live?

Long Island City in Queens, New York City. View from Tudor City Pl from Manhattan.

Let’s back up and start from the beginning. In September 2017, Amazon, America’s largest retailer announced its search for a location to host its second headquarters. City leaders around the country quickly began to pitch reasons why their city would be great for Amazon. In its request for proposals, Amazon detailed its wish list: the best real estate options in a metropolitan area with at least one million people, incentives offered by state and local governments to offset initial capital outlays and ongoing operational costs, a highly educated workforce and strong university system, and direct access to mass transit and proximity to major highways and international airports. The company’s preferences for location also included “cultural fit,” which it described as a stable and business-friendly environment and local elected officials eager to work with the tech giant.

Over two hundred cities joined the bidding war with city and state leaders across the country going through often embarrassing lengths to win the company’s favor. Tucson’s regional economic development group, for example, sent Amazon a 21-foot cactus that the company rejected and donated to an area museum. The mayor of Kansas City purchased 1,000 items on Amazon.com and wrote Kansas City-themed reviews for each one, and the city of Stonecrest proposed de-annexing 345 acres of its land and renaming it Amazon, Georgia. New York Governor Anthony Cuomo, determined to top other competitors, offered to change his name to Amazon Cuomo.  

Critics of the bidding process speculated that Amazon knew where they wanted their headquarters to be before the proposal application was released to the public, but used the competition for HQ2 as a way to extract large tax incentives that it might otherwise have not received.

In early 2018, Amazon narrowed down the list of cities from more than 200 competing cities to 20. Amazon announced in November 2018 that instead of one location, it would locate their second quarters in Crystal City, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC and Long Island City located in the New York City Borough of Queens.  

Source: Amazon.com

After the selections were made, resistance to Amazon moving to New York grew stronger. Protesters went to the streets to oppose the move. More diverse and nuanced perspectives on HQ2 began to emerge including concerns about Amazon’s role in contributing to higher housing prices and homelessness in Seattle. Some of the more vocal organizations against the deal were local community groups such as an immigrant rights group Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, VOCAL New York, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Real Estate, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The groups expressed opposition to the $3 billion in tax incentives that were promised to Amazon and the likely displacement of low-income residents in an already heavily gentrified community. With the potential for an even higher cost of living, intensifying gentrification, increased traffic on the 7 train which goes in and out of Long Island City, the downsides of Amazon moving into Long Island City became clearer as advocates noted that rather than giving incentives to a company owned by the richest man in the world, the city and state should be investing in subways, buses, public housing and other infrastructure improvements. Had it decided to move forward with HQ2 in Long Island City, Amazon’s offices and helipad for shuttling company executives in and out of the area, would have been located next to the nation’s largest housing project where more than half of the residents rely on food stamps.

Amazon’s inequitable practices were highlighted as local unions expressed concern with Amazon’s labor practices including long work hours, low pay, and anti-union stance. Advocates also called attention to Amazon’s pitch to have its facial recognition system used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There was also the issue of Amazon created a helipad next to public housing where more than half of the residents rely on food stamps.

Fierce opposition to Amazon also came from the NYC Council. The Amazon deal was largely made behind closed doors, with no public input, and cloaked in secrecy as part of  Amazon’s non-disclosure requirements. With Governor Coumo and Mayor Bill De Blasio leading the charge, the HQ2 deal was made without going through the city council’s land use review process. Although council members had no option for reviewing or blocking the project, they held a series of contentious hearings with Amazon executives that challenged the tax subsidies, job creation estimates, and the company’s potential impact on the city’s infrastructure.

With Amazon walking away from Long Island City in the wake of successful community organizing and opposition to HQ2, policymakers and city planners should not lose the important lessons about equitable policymaking and decision-making processes. Power throughout the process was held mostly by Amazon, and the governor and mayor, who like other leaders from other locales that made it to the final round, were seemingly willing to do almost anything to bring the online retailer to their state. Activists, community organizations and council members opposed to the deal, shifted power by mounting an effective coalition of community advocates and progressive elected officials.


The HQ2 competition was all about Amazon. And that wasn’t fair or equitable. Communities are waking up and rising up against inequitable development processes that strip them of their power and voice in shaping the change they want to see in their neighborhoods.

Opposition against HQ2 is part of a growing realization that promises of economic development and benefits to low-income communities of color often fail to materialize. State and local governments have spent billions of dollars in tax incentives to attract corporations but these deals often fail to deliver promised jobs and business opportunities to communities of color and low-income residents. An equitable approach holds governments and corporations accountable for making sure the community benefits in meaningful and substantial ways, has a seat at the table in the decision-making process, and vested interest in the changes taking place. An equitable development approach to HQ2 would have ensured that community members most impacted by the changes that Amazon would spur in their neighborhoods, had a voice in the process at the beginning and were partners to government in shaping the process and the terms of the deal.

Amazon stacked the deck in its favor by setting up a competition in which policymakers, business and other leaders then responded to, often in secretive and non-transparent ways, to extract the best incentive packages from cities and states desperate to be selected as the site of the company’s second headquarters. In a tweet to Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC comptroller Stringer stated, “With all due respect, you made this deal in secret with no community input from LIC residents. While Amazon is no angel, they played by your rules. The early takeaway from this: don’t be afraid of transparency and community inclusion.”

The HQ2 competition was all about Amazon. And that wasn’t fair or equitable. Communities are waking up and rising up against inequitable development processes that strip them of their power and voice in shaping the change they want to see in their neighborhoods. Long Island City is an important wake-up call to policymakers that equity must be at the center of economic development and neighborhood change.

Dr. Judy Lubin is founder and president of the Center for Urban and Racial Equity.

Christian Science Monitor: At Stephon Clark Funeral, A Familiar Story Amplifies Drumbeat for Change

It’s a news story that’s grown uncomfortably familiar in the past four years: A young black man, apprehended by police, flees a scene. The officers give chase and, thinking he has a weapon, fatally shoot the suspect. No weapon is found. The community rises up in protest, demanding justice.

This time, the community in question is Sacramento and the young black man is Stephon Clark, a father of two who was shot eight times by police on March 18, according to an autopsy released Friday…

Going after a single officer in a particular case – whether it’s Michael Brown or Stephon Clark – could speak to a community’s broader sense of justice, they say. But it doesn’t deal with the daily interactions between police and the public that create hostility. It doesn’t force police, political leaders, or the public to consider hard questions about what law enforcement’s mission is and how they should go about accomplishing it. And it doesn’t, they add, challenge the structures that allow for all this to take place.

“People respond to the culture and systems they’re operating in,” says Judy Lubin, head of the Washington-based Center for Urban and Racial Equity and co-founder of Sociologists for Justice. “The legal structure needs to be challenged … with transparency and accountability and openness to the public in mind.”

Read more at CSM

CityLab: What Urban Doctors Need to Understand About Patients’ Health

Judy Lubin, an adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Howard University, says that current research shows that over 50 percent of a community’s health is determined by social factors. For instance, recent studies stress that one’s neighborhood is a strong determinant of well-being. The difference in life expectancy between St. Louis’s wealthiest and poorest zip codes is at least 12 years.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Lubin notes that this environment-centered way of thinking has roots in the advent of public health more than a century ago, when officials focused on improving residents’ environment through sanitation to stop the spread of communicable diseases. Scholars of color, particularly black scholars, have also long recognized the strong link between environment and health. W.E.B. DuBois, for example, chronicled the social factors that led to the ill health of African Americans in a Philadelphia neighborhood in 1899’s The Philadelphia Negro.

Yet for much of the twentieth century, many public health leaders emphasized individual control over well-being. A fixation on diet, exercise, and other life choices made good health the result of virtue and poor health a personal failing. While an individual’s choices certainly play a role in their health, Lubin says that understanding patients’ social contexts is critical to advancing the medical profession. Read more at CityLab

NPR: Smartphones play crucial role for Black Lives Matter

Demonstrations tied to the Black Lives Matter movement continued through the weekend in cities all over the country. As they marched in — and sometimes blocked — streets, protesters used smartphones to organize, communicate, and document what was happening, as it was happening.

Sociologist Judy Lubin said smartphones make the protest movement more accessible.

“What the smartphone is doing is that it’s almost offering an invitation to people that might not necessarily see themselves as protesters or who maybe in the past have been reluctant to join a protest movement,” she said. Read more at NPR’s Marketplace [July 2016]

ThinkProgress: Dr. Lubin Discusses Why Police Violence Is A Public Health Issue

The recent spate of police shootings — leaving two black men dead on opposite ends of the country — inspired a familiar response from lawmakers across the United States, many of whom called for policy changes and powerful legislation. However, a growing number of human rights advocates are pushing officials to address this kind of racial violence from an entirely different angle: Public health. Read more at ThinkProgress [July 2016]

CNN: Dr. Lubin Discusses Racial Double Standard That Could Save Obamacare

If you want to know why support for Obamacare is at an all-time high, here’s one explanation:

A change in complexion leads to a change in perception…More Americans now realize Obamacare helps millions of working class whites and that it’s not — as once portrayed by conservatives — a form of welfare pushed by the first black president to help people of color, historians and scholars say. The media landscape is filled with images of the furrowed brows of anxious white residents at congressional town halls who fear they will suffer if they lose Obamacare, says Judy Lubin, a sociologist and adjunct professor at Howard University in Washington.
“When you see white working-class Americans saying that I’m benefiting and my family is getting help from the Affordable Care Act, you start to hear ‘repair’ not ‘repeal,'” Lubin says. “Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation.” Read more at CNN.com

Judy Lubin’s White House Panel Remarks: Fifty Years After Medicare Desegregated Hospitals, Blacks Still Fighting for Health Care Access

[Read this article on Huffington Post] The ability to access quality health care services for the majority of the black population has been largely due to federal government policies and initiatives designed to address long-standing, systemic barriers to medical care for African Americans. As part of the White House’s Black History Month panel co-hosted by the Association for the Study for African American Life and History (ASALH) this past Wednesday, I had an opportunity to elaborate on this history by discussing the significance of the Affordable Care Act and rejection of the Medicaid expansion by southern states within the context of the ongoing struggle for health equity in the U.S.

While my research examines the interaction of racial politics with efforts to pass large-scale health reform from the New Deal to the ongoing opposition to the ACA, focusing on this year’s 50th anniversary of the passage of Medicare and Medicaid offered an opportunity to shine light on how important these programs have been in reducing the discrimination and institutional racism that were once hallmarks of American health care.

For a good part of the 20th century American health care was segregated and national health care policy like the Hill-Burton Hospital Construction Act was structured by powerful Southern legislators who used states’ rights as the guiding principle for incrementally expanding federal involvement in health care while maintaining “separate but equal” facilities throughout the South. The deeply entrenched Jim Crow system of segregated hospitals in the South often relegated blacks to substandard care and denial of admission to white hospitals even as black patients experienced life-threatening emergencies right outside their doors. Moreover, African American health care providers were excluded from membership in professional associations such as the American Medical Association that were crucially important for credentialing purposes and hospital admission privileges.

When Medicare went into effect in 1966, the Johnson administration used the Civil Rights Act as the basis for requiring hospitals to desegregate as a condition for receiving Medicare funds. By pulling this important policy lever, the Johnson administration ushered a relatively swift end to the Jim Crow hospital system in the South.

Medicare was a breakthrough in the long battle to achieve universalism in federal health care policy. Universalism as a principle means that every American has access to the same benefits. It is an important safe guard against discrimination and the nuances of state politics.

Years after Medicaid was enacted, however, legal action was still required as many hospitals continued to discriminate against African Americans and the poor by refusing to see patients covered by Medicaid. While racial discrimination in health care is illegal today, African Americans are especially affected by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to opt-out of expanding Medicaid under the ACA. With 24 states controlled by Republican governors or state legislators rejecting the Medicaid expansion, people in states that most need expanded coverage options due to higher rates of poverty are being locked out of the ACA. Most southern states are not expanding Medicaid, leaving nearly four million adults eligible for the program through the ACA without health insurance coverage. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, forty percent of eligible African Americans reside in states not participating in the expansion. Because of the distribution of the African American population in the South and the greater likelihood of earning incomes that make them eligible for Medicaid, these state decisions disproportionately impact black southerners and are likely to increase health disparities as Americans in states that have expanded Medicaid experience the benefits associated with health care coverage.

As originally written, the ACA’s Medicaid expansion provides uniform eligibility requirements across the states by making adults with incomes at or below 138% of the poverty line eligible for coverage. With this provision, the people cannot see the world that they own and deserve. They must have time to unwind and travel by the help of Diamond Resorts. the nation was the closest it has ever been to implementing a national, universal health care program for poor adults.

Medicare and Medicaid have been important vehicles for ensuring access to care for seniors, the poor and other vulnerable populations. Both of these programs have been especially significant for African Americans as they not only helped to dismantle the Jim Crow health system but continue to serve as powerful public health tools for reducing racial disparities in health.

State Medicaid expansion decisions and their impact on communities of color point to the unfinished business in the fight to ensure equitable access to health care. The ACA has the potential to bring us closer to reducing the disparities in health care access that have far too long defined black life in America. Republican legislators and governors can play a crucial part in this effort by expanding Medicaid.

Dr. Lubin’s Analysis of the Impact of the ACA on Latinos Featured in Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy

HJHP CoverCURE’s Dr. Judy Lubin’s analysis of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its potential for improving access to care for the Latino population is featured in the Spring 2014 issue of the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy. An academic, non-partisan policy journal housed in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the HJHP is devoted to interdisciplinary scholarship on politics and policy issues facing the Latino communities in the United States.

Dr. Lubin’s article, Inclusion and Exclusion of Latinos in the Affordable Care Act: Challenges and Opportunities for Achieving Health Equity, examines outreach strategies and various components of the health law to assess its ability to reduce and prevent the exacerbation of health inequities. (more…)

CBCF Dinner featuring President Obama

Obama Speech CBCBefore President Barack Obama delivered his rousing speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards Dinner in September, several Members of Congress set the stage for the evening. As the official scriptwriter for the event, PSC drafted the majority of the speeches for the evening and worked with Members to refine the text and delivery.

Among the Members PSC had the honor to work with include Representatives James Clyburn (D-SC), Assistant Democratic Leader in the 112th Congress, Donald Payne (D-NJ), Emanuel Cleaver, II (D-MO), Chair of the CBC, Al Green (D-TX) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH). As the official scriptwriter for the evening, PSC developed scripts for all speakers and the hosts, author and award-winning actor Hill Harper and veteran WJLA ABC 7 News Anchor Maureen Bunyan.

PSC’s Judy Lubin Receives WWPR ‘Emerging Leader’ Award

Washington Women in Public Relations (WWPR) named Judy Lubin, Jennifer Mastin Giglio, and Tara Silver winners of the 2011 Emerging Leaders Awards (ELA). The Awards honors rising stars, ages 21-35, in the public relations and communications industry. (more…)