Atlanta: New Mayor, Same Problems

Yesterday I attended an event joined by other REALTORS® and some Neighborhood Planning Unit leaders alike. We all sat and listened to Mayor-Elect Andre Dickens as the crowd peppered him with questions. After Mayor Bottoms governing via press release approach, I am incredibly grateful for a Mayor who comes to speak directly with his people. Not since Mayor Reed had his Bobby Kennedy moment in the BLM strikes of 2016 have I felt a renewed sense of relief that a well adjusted adult was at the helm. These were not planted questions- mine certainly wasn’t. The questions also weren’t soft balls except for the one about Racquetball or squash- I can’t remember (I kid you not- the tennis center thing was a hot button issue in the city among those who play this past year). I have mixed feelings about what I heard. I remain hopeful, but want to discuss why I’m cautious about feeling confident in Dickens’ leadership. There’s a history here and despite talk, we seem to be really keen on repeating it. It isn’t clear to me how Atlanta (and Georgia for that matter) will dig themselves out of this rut of flooding the urban and isolating the rural areas of our state. I’m hopeful for the City Council though- Alex Wan has returned and the Council itself is decidedly more progressive but not in a tax and spend kind of way. The candidates who made it through the gauntlet are innovative, and have pushed for more aggressive changes in the city versus their incumbent counterparts who seemed content to repeat what they’d done already for the last 30 years or so. But will this be enough? Will the Council and the Mayor work well together? What about the Mayor and Governor? Will we actually see meaningful departure from the previous lackluster actions taken or do I have to wait for more Boomers to die or Buckhead to secede?

In the past pieces I’ve written about Atlanta from the perspective of my neighborhood, which holds a special place in Atlanta as the first neighborhood that was integrated. Mozley Park became the epicenter of the cascading White Flight. As a REALTOR®, one of the offices I report to is in Buckhead.  I reside in what is colloquially referred to as the “SWATS”, in SW Atlanta. Often these two are parlayed together in conversations like opposites, although the reference is usually from “Bankhead to Buckhead”. If you look on a map though, I can walk to the heart of what most consider Bankhead (and have written about an interaction with the police there).

I framed my question about the even distribution of affordable housing throughout the city to the Mayor-Elect with a reference to my neighborhood. Affordable housing was the first issue he discussed. He talked of using public land owned by the city to provide it. This has been discussed for the last year or so. KLB has been discussing using the Civic Center land for a while. Normally I would ask someone to define “affordable” in the discussion, (I define it as 20% of AMI) but thankfully the Mayor-Elect sort of offered that up in the discussion of ADUs in the meeting. Accessory Dwelling Units have been a discussion of late among the Zoning discussions across the city. These secondary buildings or basements reconstrued as fee simple owned homes aren’t going to solve our problem. REALTORS® know this, as does anyone who’s watched the prices in metro Atlanta in the last few years. I encountered this within the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board where a rarely present member NPU (from Buckhead) showed up and tried to get the rest of APAB delegates to sign onto a letter that had not been circulated to the group in opposition to ADUs- or at least, I think that’s what the letter was supposed to say- I never saw it. And call me crazy, but I’m not voting on something I haven’t read. The rarely present member NPU leader WAS present at this meeting, unsurprisingly. 

The answer Mayor-elect Dickens gave was problematic for a few reasons. Namely, to my knowledge, Atlanta doesn’t own enough public land to adequately address affordable housing. And unless we’re going to start taxing more heavily, we’re not going to be able to buy our way out of this challenge either. Secondarily, he referenced properties off North Avenue, Riverside, and the Civic Center. I specifically noted in my question that most of the affordable housing was located in the South and West sides of the city, and his answer further affirmed that. North Avenue (for anyone who may not know Atlanta geography) was named because it was the northern most point at one time in the city. 

North Avenue is also a line of demarcation for red lining, which is implicitly what the city’s efforts are continuing to mimic. (Ever notice how road names change when you cross over North Ave? Thank racism!) How is Dickens’ plan different? 

He referenced his documented push to have a more even distribution of affordable housing around the Beltline, but my attendance at the recent Beltline update meeting showed that the properties are NOT evenly distributed- Buckhead and the East side of Atlanta remain without affordable projects. The proposed projects are following the prescribed West and Southern locations as before. 

So I have to ask: is this all just talk? Is this politically not feasible?

I mean, I get it- we were in a room full of Buckhead agents and North and East NPU leaders in that room (there was a roll call of sorts that told me I was one of the few from the South or Westside of town). It isn’t helpful to ruffle feathers before you enter the office. But can we agree we’re going to have to sincerely address this issue if we want to address housing here? Or was that part of campaign talk and governing is different? I hope with time, he will choose a different path.

Also-can we address the classism to which this inherently contributes? I don’t mean to put too fine of a point on things, but a wise man (Jay Bailey, of RCIE fame) once told me that ‘when you talk about class, you often get race for free’. If we’re pricing folks out of the city so that only certain classes can live here, those future demographics may not support future Black leadership, right? 

And on discussion of Black leadership, I was further dismayed to learn that part of the affordable housing discussion involved speaking to crime. Mayor-elect Dickens said they are about to unveil housing units in Vine City (10 mins away from me, also in the West) specifically for cadets in training. My bet (although I don’t remember him directly saying this) is these will be the cadet training for Cop City. Dickens’ Cop City vote was what cost him my support, but probably shrewdly gained him a number of folks in the room we shared yesterday. 

For anyone who may not know, Vine City is part of one of the smallest NPUs in the city as well as one of the most gifted historic areas. In the past, it has been a testament to Black wealth and leadership. In the last year though, I learned the NPU there is dominated by developers who charge dues to be a voting member, effectively disenfranchising the already existing homeowners there. The fact that the new cadet housing is going into an already over-policed and rapidly gentrifying area is also not lost on me. 

The most problematic portion of Dickens’ answer to me was what I hope I heard incorrectly- his assertion that he wanted to turn all neighborhoods in Atlanta into neighborhoods where folks want to live-as if they aren’t that way already. I already live where I want to- as do neighbors in Vine City, Grove Park, and Bankhead. I don’t want the boxes à la Brock Built I see going up in English Avenue. I don’t want the palatial palaces I see in Buckhead. I moved here, probably like Dickens moved to Collier Heights- for the historic homes and the strong community. I am not opposed to gentle density either- I lived in a mid-rise condo building off Charles Allen Dr. before enduring Gwinnett County for a few years. Density makes sense around MARTA stations. I think that is a reasonable thing to do. I don’t want my neighborhood to look anymore like Buckhead than Buckhead wants to look like mine. I just want there to be homes priced at 20% AMI for folk who already live in my neighborhood to be able to stay in their homes. This will have to be subsidized- no question. This doesn’t mean I want everything to be of cookie cutter similarity, either.

As for Georgia- this isn’t an “Atlanta” problem exclusively anymore. As I work to find homes for folks who don’t wish to live in or cannot afford Atlanta- the spillover is affecting other counties. Our state leaders will need to address affordable housing in areas around our urban centers as folks move more into city centers for the “golden hour” rule of healthcare or jobs, or at least until they seriously focus on addressing rural healthcare, Medicaid expansion, and economic development in these areas. I remember affordable housing being an issue in LaGrange a few years ago in a statewide leadership class of which I was a member. Georgians should not lie to ourselves and speak of this only in terms of Atlanta.

The latter is something with which I hope my soon-to-be Mayor can help. He created the ATL DOT, and transportation is the easiest form of economic development an area can implement. It can also be federally funded via the new funds through Biden’s Infrastructure Plan, as long as Georgia’s Republican leaders can get their heads out of their asses long enough to receive/steward the money wisely. Today the Mayor-elect is meeting with Transportation Secretary Buttigieg. Buttigieg will need support from the “Black Mecca” to overcome his own racial challenges from South Bend that arose in his last Presidential run. My Mayor-to-be can invite him to the proverbial cookout. (Folks outside of Atlanta aren’t as aware of the demographic and class change that’s taking place here.) It can be a provision of racial cover & shared power that can be mutually beneficial. As the Secretary doles out funding, Mayor-Elect might remember that his alma mater’s VP of Government Relations was previously a Governor’s Floorleader. Perhaps GDOT might work with Ga Tech to create transportation projects in rural Ga (say following the 316 corridor and the fiber optic line running down it) or replicating that fiber optic line following the spine of I-20 to Augusta, going through rural areas like Taliaferro Co, which is about an hour, hour and a half from Athens, Milledgeville, Macon, Atlanta, and Augusta. Augusta is already trying to fill in all the hundreds of thousands of cyber security jobs needed in our country (thank you, Augusta University). Maybe we could create a transportation belt linking Columbus, Cordele and Savannah to boost economic development in and out of the inland port? If you follow HWY 280, there’s another previous Governor’s Floorleader (now Senate Appropriations Chair) whose district that would run right through.  Bulking up transportation across the state would endear my Mayor-elect to a rural focused Governor while also getting the funding for Atlanta’s transportation needs as well.

Link these cities together like the jewels they are in the crown of Georgia and you will have a significant economic impact attracting folks to move into rural areas to escape the hustle and bustle of my city.  I ain’t mad about it! Ha! I grew up in a space that was more field than freeways. And folks where I came from don’t want their cities to look like Atlanta- they moved there because they are grateful for the speed and vision those cities already have. Create sustainable transportation ways to ensure healthcare and employment needs are met, and you will stem the flow from rural to urban. 

This is all possible. I just hope my city and state leaders have the vision for it rather than relying on the previously tried (and failed) attempts in the past. We have a chance to do it differently. I hope we shall, sooner than later.

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