October 31, 2019; Next City
Writing in Next City, Jared Brey profiles Plymouth Housing, a 40-year-old nonprofit that provides permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people in Seattle. Brey writes that the nonprofit “houses 1,000 residents in 14 buildings, a number of which are part of the historic architectural fabric of the downtown area, which the group has taken on the responsibility of rehabilitating or restoring.”
Homelessness, as some NPQ readers may recall, has been a major political issue in Seattle. Indeed, about 18 months ago, Seattle’s city council unanimously passed a tax on business to address homelessness—which, however, was rescinded just one month later due to opposition from Amazon and other Seattle-based companies.
Surely, you might think, a nonprofit like Plymouth Housing would be on the front lines demanding that the city step up to address homelessness. But you would be mistaken. According to Amanda Vail, Plymouth’s communications and development manager, the nonprofit has no position on the business tax or on Amazon’s opposition to it.
As Vail puts it, “Plymouth thrives because we have both government support and support from private individuals and the corporate sector. It’s up to the cities and our governments to determine the best balance of how those things come together.”
Why is the homeless-service nonprofit silent on a central issue of Seattle homelessness policy?
We can’t say for sure, but Brey does inform us that last spring, Plymouth “launched a $75 million fundraising campaign, with plans to open eight new apartment buildings with homes and supportive services for 800 new residents. Within a few weeks, the group announced—somewhat to its own CEO’s surprise, according to reports—that it had already raised about two-thirds of the money. Among the early donors were Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle’s two biggest tech companies, which each chipped in $5 million. Another $5 million came from Steve and Connie Ballmer, who became billionaires during Steve Ballmer’s time as CEO of Microsoft.”
Now a $5 million check from Amazon is certainly welcome, but a one-time $5 million donation is less than the $10 million estimated annual tax bill Amazon would have faced under the rescinded Seattle business tax.
As NPQ has written before, in the pharmaceutical industry, donations to patient advocacy nonprofits have regularly been used to preempt possible nonprofit opposition to rising drug prices. Back in 2017, NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge noted, “Readers may remember that even as legislators got incensed about a 400-percent increase in the price of EpiPens, patient advocacy groups were relatively silent. Instead of opposing the price hike, the groups kept busy in creating the market conditions that would allow such gouging. In fact, pharmaceutical companies seem to have made it a central part of their business plans to charge out-of-control prices and then fund groups to help to offset those prices with charitable give-back programs.” McCambridge estimates that 80 percent of patient advocacy groups accept donations from drug and medical companies.
Could a similar dynamic be emerging with affordable housing? For sure, we know that high-tech companies, recognizing their impact on local housing markets, have greatly stepped up their affordable housing donations. This year, Microsoft has announced the creation of a $500 million revolving loan fund to build and preserve low- and middle-income housing; Google has committed to allocating $1 billion to build 20,000 new homes in the Bay Area, mostly by repurposing $750 million worth of its own land for residential use; and Facebook has said it will invest $1 billion in Bay Area housing as well, including $225 million in donated land and $25 million for teacher housing in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. As NPQ noted last month, Facebook’s donation too leaves us “asking how much these deals, which are sure to draw down a good deal of public money and attention, will reflect and advance the priorities of the company rather than those of a popular base.”
Clearly, affordable housing needs more money. Even so, we caution that it will be important to track if tech industry donations have a chilling effect on nonprofit housing advocacy. Plymouth’s behavior in that regard certainly makes us queasy.—Steve Dubb