Workforce Housing and Those Willing to Work

Last year I spent the majority of time writing about the Atlanta Planning Advisory Board (APAB), my opinions about the lack of leadership from its President, and the lack of support received from the Dept. of City Planning, despite this responsibility existing in the Municipal Code. This is super problematic as Atlanta is moving through the Zoning Rewrite- the first of its kind in 40 years and the entity that’s supposed to bring NPUs together across the city doesn’t really keep many NPUs engaged. Hope is not all lost though, and to kick off the new year and get back to work, I want to spend some time sharing that hope and highlighting those who are lending their time and talents to the cause. There is opposition (always is, isn’t there?) to the folks doing the work, but they keep showing up and keep engaging Atlanta around them, in fact, sometimes their committee meeting attendance exceeds APAB’s General Body meeting! I have hoped in the past that the APAB President would see the forward movement of these folks and amplify it as an encouragement to others to join in (thinking of that whole codified requirement of citizen engagement APAB is supposed to do), but the APAB culture seems to be anti-change, and more self-serving than not. To be fair, that’s not the President’s fault. APAB seems to have devolved over time to an entity that does little more than serve as a springboard for appointments to other boards in the city or political offices.  I have no way of knowing accurately, but I would bet my bottom dollar that the votes the current APAB President secured to keep her seat are largely dependent upon the members she has appointed to other boards. It’s sort of this cycle that is the rinse and repeat of Atlanta that has left our systems sagging rather than being updated. While that’s depressing, I have found some sparks amongst the ashes that keeps my hope alive. I’ll share what keeps me going here and I hope they may be resources for others likewise.

An updated website and social media presence is a sort of baseline for anything now, right? So when I joined APAB four years ago and I found out there was a splash page with a website soon to follow, I thought we were vastly behind the times, yet moving in the right direction. Over the years though, and lack of much of any movement on the website has left me (and others on the board) wondering why this is so hard. Peach Pundit is a WordPress-backed site, and companies like Wix and Square Space have made creating a website easy and straightforward for even me- a not particularly knowledgable individual when it comes to website design. This lack of forward movement also isn’t because the individuals in charge of creating the website weren’t capable or ready, they just seem to be caught up in the process loop APAB’s President loves to hide behind instead of making a decision. 

Everyone knows the way to kill something is to send it to the committee, right? We’ve got that in spades at APAB! 

So you can imagine my joy when I heard that Jereme Sharpe, APAB’s new Financial Secretary, and alternate for NPU M, was willing to create a website. Here’s his first draft. You notice it has space for Committee Reports, documents, and even the Welcome Letter I created last year for members.  This Welcome Letter was a tool I threaded through the body to hopefully empower our member Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs) and provide a model for reports to be given to those member NPUs in their own meetings. Although the municipal code unites NPUs and APAB (in fact, APAB exists only because the NPUs do), the individual NPUs bylaws do not all consistently list APAB as a responsibility of the NPU. I wrote about this last time and demonstrated in maps who engages in APAB vs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN). It’s my hope that this website can serve as a means of resource deployment for NPUs. To the end of eradicating the Correspondence Secretary position I occupy, a regularly updated website means less need for emailed agendas and more posting of information. 

But sadly (and unsurprisingly), at our recent Executive Committee meeting (1:32:57), instead of moving forward with anything, the APAB President sent the website back to the Committee on APAB, which has had purview over this website for the past four years. We’ll see if it makes it to the full board. If not, please know it wasn’t for lack of trying! I had hoped this could be another resource for NPUs to learn about Zoning, the Comprehensive Development Plan, and generally to just be more informed.  Alas, while this decision could have been made in January by the Executive Committee, the President sent it to the Committee on APAB in hopes of burying it. 

Doing the work of the body isn’t the APAB President’s strong point.

Before APAB had a website, one of our other members created one for the Public Safety Committee he chairs. Using his own money and website design skills, Chris Brown, alternate of NPU S, was engaging folks at APAB on issues of Public Safety before Mayor Bottoms established the Public Safety Commission for the city. This Public Safety Commission is one of the appointments the APAB President blocked last year. Thankfully, City Council saw his work was worthy of inclusion and honored that with the compliment of their appointment. I encountered Chris when he ran for our Board of Education seat in 2018, I think. He has a labor-organizing background and a passion for youth engagement. I have sat in on his Committee meetings previously and did so before the close of last year. The December APAB Public Safety Committee meeting was hosted in person in Committee Room 2 at City Hall and via Zoom. Our APAB Committee Chairs have gotten really good at taking one for the team and hosting an in-person meeting so that the rest of us can engage from home virtually, due to DCP’s interpretation of the Mayor’s Executive Order requiring all Boards, Authorities, Commissions, Etc. (BACE)s to meet in person. 

Where the APAB President doesn’t put an obstacle to progress, I find DCP doesn’t miss a beat. 

In the meantime, please don’t think the empowerment of members is exclusive to the younger set, though. The Committee on APAB is led by Terry Ross, NPU T’s alternate.  I was initially impressed with his leadership within APAB on the resolution recognizing the souls lost at the Bellwood Quarry due to the debt imprisonment and contract/convict labor practices used by the Chattahoochee Brick Company. Terry shepherded this resolution through the APAB General Body meeting, and I appreciated its historic significance as well as its tie to the current city reckoning of the city as Atlanta develops the Westside Reservior Park.  I attended their event last year and would have arrived earlier, only the first in-person APAB meeting that occurred that day ran needlessly long. Questions about the resolution regarding this last year were what prompted my post about the Municipal Clerk’s office last year. (Others had paid attention to the resolution as well and wanted to know what came of it.) I later learned about Terry’s work on the Community Engagement Playbook in the past and his leadership on the Committee on APAB is the main reason why the Welcome Letter to empower APAB members was even able to be heard on the floor- with both DCP and the APAB President’s active opposition to it. Terry’s service on the License Review Board has also been helpful to other NPU’s membership as well when they’ve had questions regarding alcohol licensing. I could always connect those with questions directly and Terry offered his wisdom. Terry is approachable, presides over the challenging opinions of the committee with grace, and isn’t afraid to speak with candor when he wishes to convey when he feels I have created problems. 

I value the latter more than most– it takes guts and a certain level of tact to tell someone they are the problem and for that person to continue to respect their opinion. “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”- Churchill. 

Despite the pettiness of the APAB President and a certain Assistant Director of DCP, I’ve found other women on APAB to be the community advocates I know the Junior League of Atlanta, Inc. any organization would salivate over: dedicated, authentic, and thorough. One such is Keona Jones, APAB’s Recording Secretary, and delegate of NPU J. I worked with her on the Education Committee when I first joined APAB. She was welcoming and forward-thinking. We were interested in putting together a Youth NPU or a Youth Council as I’ve seen in Kennesaw. Championed by another woman I respect, previous Kennesaw Councilwoman, Cris Eaton-Welsh, the Kennesaw Youth Council was an opportunity for kids to learn about how their city government works. I’m not sure it’s active anymore, but I thought it was a great idea! So I wanted to put an Atlanta spin on it. Keona and I were both interested in teaching kids about the NPU system and understanding that they get a voice in the city around them. 

Funny enough, Keona was also the person who made me aware of the meddling of a particular Assistant Director of DCP in their own NPU. I was aware that the Assistant Director encouraged people for leadership positions on boards and appointments (nothing wrong with that), but I had been unaware that she also meddled in the election process of an NPU. NPUs are autonomous in their practices, but the election process is one in which the city reserves the right to intervene. Fun fact: APAB can be a part of that intervention as well, depending upon NPU bylaws, and that was the experience in NPU J previously. I didn’t believe Keona at first, but after I started posing questions, I began to see a very different side of the Assistant Director that I’d never seen before. Now after all of the foolishness I’ve experienced with this particular member of the DCP staff, I cannot thank her enough for the knowledge she graciously shared.

Speaking of strong, feminine, servant leadership, Leslie Ramirez serves as the current Utilities Chair and delegate to NPU W. After NPU W’s Chair dropped off attendance last year, she stepped in to serve and if memory serves me correctly, she was already taking notes for the Committee on APAB. This is on top of serving relentlessly in other areas around the city. She’s a campaign hack as well, working previously on the Abrams and then the Warnock teams. She is also a small business owner. The House of Ramirez, her company, also makes her the first Latina licensed in Georgia to sell hemp. As the state continues to hem and haw, I hope the state will call upon her to provide guidance as the industry grows. As a single mother and a community advocate, she speaks from a place of experience that might otherwise be missed by the aging membership of the majority of APAB members. I value her good questions, above all. She reminds the rest of us that questions should always be welcome and if someone doesn’t understand, it should always be reasonable to seek further clarity. Her background in marketing is one that I hope the board will engage more. She is bilingual, and it is my hope that in the coming year she can proofread my use of Google Translate to provide APAB’s documents in Spanish as well. Atlanta has a significant Spanish speaking population, as well as Nigerian and Korean communities. 

We cannot unify a city without making our documents more accessible. 

Others who seek clarity from the City of Atlanta are more quiet, but their questions pack punch. Jim Martin, APAB CDHS/ ZLU Chair and NPU D Chair often asks systems questions and is the source of the majority of our resolutions. How he continues to author and pass resolutions for six straight years without the city acknowledging or implementing any of them in their practice is a clear sign of hope springing eternal. He has often been the person who puts my own exasperation in perspective. Jim is precise in language and strategic in practice. He is also not afraid to challenge the city, as his challenge to the Gulch deal demonstrates (h/t to friend of the blog, Maggie Lee of the Saporta Report for the coverage). Folks from the Capitol will recognize a particular previous state legislator’s name among the four that filed that lawsuit. 

I also value Kyle Kessler, the APAB Bylaws Chair and delegate of NPU M, whose language precision regarding APAB motions may err to the point that I fear he lets perfect be the enemy of good. Yet I can appreciate that he calls all of us to a higher standard consistently and constantly. On that we both agree. Kyle is the only person on the board with whom I have some existing mutual friends (of which I wasn’t aware until one of them pointed this out). It is because of these friendships and the integrity I know they hold that I began to question Kyle (slightly) less. 🙂 Kyle is also probably the person I challenge the most on the board. He seems to take it in stride, and for that I am grateful. As an aside, NPU M is also the NPU in which the Atlanta Medical Center previously existed. I made sure he was aware of The Grumpy Old Man’s knowledgeable posts and encouraged commenting. They could probably teach each other a few things. 

Non-Committee Chair members who also give me hope include Naomi Siodmok, of NPU N, whose edits of the Welcome Letter were helpful and her questions at General Body meetings in the past demonstrate her close reading of resolutions and deeper thought to their ramifications. Ms. Barbara Leath, NPU H’s delegate, who was the only other member of the body who gave me feedback (and solid recommendations at that) on the Welcome Letter, as well. It is my understanding that she has served quite extensively, and I was grateful to receive her recommendations. To me, she and Naomi demonstrated the beauty of either end of the APAB spectrum- the wisdom of experience, and the practical user friendliness of innovation. So too, Sherry Belille, delegate of NPU L, inspires me. I met her at an interview of Board of Education member, Aretta Baldon. Our shared interest in education endeared her to me in a small chance meeting in a elevator years ago off Pryor. I was grateful to see she was serving within APAB last year. On the occasion Kyle Lamont, delegate of NPU S, is present (he has deferred to Chris Brown in the past), he always provides Parlimentary guidance that seems to ensure all that are present fully understand options and procedure. I hope he will be more present at meetings this year. APAB could use less committee work being done on the floor.

Jim and both Kyles are often demonstrable sources on city process and RONR for all members within APAB. Yet our Parlimentarian, Rasheen Hunter, delegate of NPU P, seems to understand the gift of the diversity of this board the most. Rasheen seems to recognize that diversity of thought and approach is the key to better city planning rather than checking some demographic boxes, although the folks I’ve mentioned here check many of those as well. That may have to do with his own background, primarily his time within student government at Clayton State. Rasheen organized the first protest in the Atlanta area following Trayvon Martin’s murder. The protest ocurred at Clayton State, while he was a student. He seems to understand the shared importance of taking to the streets of APAB’s longer standing members and my writing as a platform for challenging power. I appreciate his recognition that my criticisms of DCP and the APAB President do not come from a place of hatred, but out of frustration and hope for better.

DCP and the APAB President have been given ample opportunity to serve the citizens of the city. Each of APAB’s members strive to come together to have respectful debate of the issues brought before us. 

I hope as the Neighborhood Summit approaches, as school systems become more of a focus of service delivery in Atlanta via the neighborhood/ Purpose Built approach, and while the state is beginning to consider providing more latitude for cities to foster workforce housing through zoning,  I hope NPUs are trained on how to foster and attract the growth they wish to see, handle the conversations around it, and empowered to mitigate the consequences of it. Without an overall approach to planning a balance between city and state laws, zoning, and neighborhood hopes, our NPU leaders continue to be ill-equipped to navigate the items placed upon their agenda with little understanding of how to mitigate their neighborhoods fear of traffic congestion, fear of crime, and remain largely unaware of how to thread the needle of change. As a result, some fear change, and have very little fact based training to provide counters to it. And to be fair, the city doesn’t provide adequate systems to even really meaningfully process what they receive from NPUs. It leaves members feeling unheard and like the exercise is simply performative. NPU Chairs (and APAB resolutions) previously have suggested standardizing comment forms to make it easier for NPU Chairs to convey their members’ concerns while also fitting within the city’s systems. 

But all of this seems to fall on deaf ears of DCP. 

I sat in a training for two hours night before last, because I always appreciate learning from others’ experiences. This training was specific to Elected Officers in the NPU system. I find I learn how to advocate better for the community from the community members themselves. 

DCP doesn’t teach that. I wish APAB would.

TBH, I’m not sure that I was supposed to be in the training. The invitation email was sent to my husband, who was an NPU elected officer in 2021, and I’m an elected Officer of APAB now. I assumed a mistake was made as, like Donald Trump, he isn’t elected to anything currently. This happens more often than one might imagine- I chalk it up to various folks not always recognizing our last names aren’t the same. Fulton County recently referred to him as Mr. Hawk, and often I find folks refer in the inverse to me. It’s something we’ve gotten used to over the years of marriage. But the training seemed to center on NPU Chair leadership, rather than other officers within the NPU. Clarity of which group this should have gone to would have been helpful, and perhaps also a more tailored approach for each role, with a prerecorded video that could be provided with an opportunity to follow up with a DCP staff member for questions. If there were a prerecordedt video, it would allow the material to be referenced again by trainees and would give DCP staff back their time. Berkshire Hathaway does a fair amount of their training this way, and who hasn’t watched a You Tube video for a house repair at this point? 

What I haven’t found yet is the training on how NPUs and APAB function together (even if only in theory), and training on how to develop neighborhoods based on the neighborhood’s desire, vs. understanding developer process. I took a course on this in 2021, provided by DCP’s NPU University (a curriculum of courses that are provided for free and online to folks who register). The course was ULI Urban Planning, offered by ULI Atlanta, and I realized too late it was just a class that taught neighborhoods how to fit within the city’s system of developer-led neighborhood development. We don’t seem to have a training to empower citizens to create spaces that welcome the change they wish or sometimes need to see. DCP seems to want to train us all to be good little worker bees in the city’s systems to provide free labor in the performative citizen engagement experiment Mayor Jackson’s vision has devolved to. 

IMHO, the challenge for APAB and the NPUs as we confront the Zoning Rewrite is not a dearth of smart and deeper thinking community members who are willing to do more work. We have those! And if you think we all agree (or that I am even liked by some of these folks), I’ll invite you to sit in on our meetings so you can see if that assumption is true. I respect their intelligence, and their perspective, and their willingness to come to the table to work. I don’t have to agree with someone to appreciate them. To me, the challenge is a Dept of Planning that consistently misses the opportunity to empower its citizens to help facilitate the growth our city and state shall see in the coming years while abating the fears of neighborhood members who remember why APAB was created- in opposition to the then Dept of Budget and Planning’s plan to put a highway through the Virginia Highlands. Following Eggs and Issues, it seems pretty clear the Mayor and the Governor are focusing on zoning that will be focused on workforce housing, which is commonly (but not always defined) as affordable to families with incomes between 60-120% of AMI (Area Median Income), or your teachers, police officers, retail workers, etc. 

My continual push/hope for APAB is to better inform our members, make it easier to do the work that is relevant to the NPUs that make up our membership, and ensure citizens are heard. NPU leaders need to understand their place in all of this situates them not just in the midst of their group of neighborhoods, but also either inviting in or pushing out housing into our suburbs and the rest of the state. Workforce housing isn’t just a city issue; it’s now a part of a state focused agenda that keeps us at the top of lists of companies setting up shop here. If we want economic prosperity and future generations to be able to live in Georgia, we have to plan appropriately for that. The rinse and repeat of APAB going through the motions while holding onto titles won’t work this year. But this is what is so incredibly beautiful about citizen engagement Atlantans, right? We just hustle harder. Atlantans have been leaning in before it was a book. This is, in fact, the purpose and history associated with this board, right? Mayor Jackson’s crowning achievement of empowering citizens to plan their city is built on the foundation of speaking out and rising above. The current APAB members have broad shoulders upon which to stand. The resilience of APAB- despite its dizzying loops of process, at times self-interested leadership, and the outright opposition of DCP to virtually any empowerment of citizens- makes our members rise like the phoenix our city has adopted as a symbol. It is my expectation that from the scorched earth practices of APAB’s President last year, instead of deterring folks, she has in fact galvanized members that were not previously so. Only time will tell though. What I do know is that folks at APAB are ready to do the work of the Zoning Rewrite. I hope the APAB President and DCP are as well. 

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