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Why we need to dispel the tech-city myth

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Amazon’s New York City move is bad for the city—and for Amazon’s employees

Like many New Yorkers, both the natives and the transplants like me, I am semi-addicted to this city. Our public transit, our density, our diversity (despite the neighborhood segregation), our bodegas stocked with everything we could ever think of, open until the wee hours—many of us become convinced we have it better than our suburban or small-city peers. Our smug superiority translates into a fear of living elsewhere, despite my unofficial data that say a higher quality of life, and a happier existence, is far more readily accessible outside the metropolitan area. For the past ten years, I’ve been jealously following my various friends’ moves—to smaller cities, the country, or the suburbs, and each one of them (except for one lonely person in Maplewood, N.J.) is happier.

Which is why I was extra disgruntled about Amazon’s announcement that they’d chosen the most expensive neighborhood in Queens, where the average home price has climbed from $509,000 in 2012 to $769,000 now, for half of their new headquarters. I believe Amazon’s decision is based on a myth: that in order to attract highly skilled workers you have to be in a place already marked “cool” by the masses. Like New Yorkers themselves, the Amazonians seem to have looked at cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, or Albuquerque and judged them not hip enough. But they’re wrong. The people they’re going to hire, and import, are in the same demographic as those whose deliriously happy moves I’ve enviously chronicled.

Amazon’s decision is bad for everyone. Placing tens of thousands of highly-paid jobs in a city where there’s already a housing crisis is not just a missed opportunity for other cities but the end of opportunity for those living here but for the grace of some form of rent stabilization. Amazon had a crippling effect on Seattle’s housing market, and most tech workers can’t afford good digs in San Francisco, either.

But Amazon’s choice is not just bad for New Yorkers. It’s also bad for Amazon workers moving from other cities. According to Glassdoor, the average base salary of an Amazon software developer is around $113,000 a year (though Amazon says many of the salaries will be more like $150,000). To most of us, that sounds like a lot of dough, but after taxes and benefits—not to mention student loans, for that Stanford tech education—that could be less than $5,000 a month, which won’t buy a particularly high quality of life here.

If you put 20 percent down on a $769,000 home in Long Island City—of which there are around 10 in total, not enough for those 25,000 arriving humans—your mortgage alone would be over $3,000, more than half your income. The average starting pay of a warehouse worker is $13/hour, though it will legally have to be at least $15/hour here. Those workers won’t even be able to compete for a local home.

The benefit of being a highly skilled worker is choice, options of where to work and live—that’s the point of subsisting on Soylent and blood boys and four hours of nightly sleep. But I’m not sure that these workers have been asked their opinions. I have long proposed a registry of “Highly-Skilled-and-Happy-to-Move” workers, a list where people would outline their skillsets and the cities and areas they’d be willing—delighted, even—to relocate to. Many would choose places close to family, or with less traffic and easy access to nature, or where $769,000 would buy you, say, a four-bed, three-and-a-half bath, sprawling contemporary—places very unlike New York. Maybe a place where the mayor and governor get along in more than one instance—an instance that may have devastating consequences for their constituents.

I know many highly skilled workers. A lot of them are content here, but many dream of moving. When I point out the draw of other cities—the free college tuition the city of Kalamazoo provides for residents, or the bonus cash Tulsa will pay remote workers to relocate—my friends always say, “I’ll go if you go.” They don’t want to give up New York City’s most valuable resource: its people. Which is why this is an amazing opportunity for like-minded—or at least like-skilled—people to move together. Establish your culture, your clan, in a city that has room for you, where your investment will be meaningful and beneficial to the city and won’t be met with hundreds of thousands of people saying ew, gross.

Amazon already had its chance to do this: Among the contenders for HQ2 were cities with burgeoning or developed tech scenes, comparatively lower costs of living, diversity, public transit, and walkability. If only Amazon had put up some sidewalks, helped to up the density, and created some great jobs. At least 25,000 squeezed New Yorkers and highly skilled tech workers would have been waiting for Amazon’s call.