Affordable Housing Without the Atlanta Way

Affordable Housing has become a recent buzzword in Georgia. It’s sort of a catch-all phrase, I’m afraid, for a wide range of real estate dealings in Atlanta. In some circles, it’s the “missing middle” or workforce housing, particularly around teachers and police/fire/EMS. In others, it means a safety net for a certain depressed socio-economic status. I find the term has become so encompassing that it waters down any meaningful movement within the city that doesn’t seem to plan for anything other than significant sports events and conferences – looking at you FIFA. Last week Atlanta’s leaders made some big moves- all of which the city takes a great deal of pride in and alllllll the ribbon cuttings. I’m betting at least one of these was as a result of the fatality that occurred on 75, sadly. I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but a cheerleader for poor policy decisions, I cannot be. That said, rather than simply poke holes and leave you with the questions I have, I’m going to leave you with a beacon as well.  While Atlanta remains challenged in finding its feet in terms of city planning, I hope other localities across the state can benefit from this model as a means to determine their destinies on their own terms. While the City officials try to dazzle you with bovine excrement, I hope state leaders will look deeper into what makes meaningful change rather than the band-aid fixes my city leaders seem fixated on. 

Much ado was made about a recent announcement regarding Bowen Homes… And much should be made! The land use of this area was abysmal, with the site sitting vacant for years. Decades ago, “Bowen Homes was built as part of the Low Rent Housing Program and was completed in 1964. The community was named after John W.E. Bowen, Sr., one of the first African Americans to earn a Ph.D. in the United States. The residential community was comprised of 650 units and included an early education facility and library” according to Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA)’s website. If you like history of this sort, here’s a link to the virtual exhibit the AHA had regarding Bowen’s creation following the displacement of Black folks living in Buttermilk Bottoms, when the Civic Center was built. Ironically, last year, the AHA announced the Civic Center is to be used for affordable housing again as well, yet I haven’t seen any changes to the exterior nor any current headlines to reflect any forward movement though. 

Does this cycle repeating give you the same anxiety that Atlanta isn’t meaningfully addressing anything, or is that just me? 

For whatever it is worth to share here, there are LOTS of vacant, underutilized, or poorly used land lots in Atlanta, if anyone is interested in exploring. My guess is, it’s sort of a testament to a) the City of Atlanta being more developer-led rather than approaching land use with a strategic plan.  b) The challenge left in the wake of the abrupt departure of the previous Commissioner of Dept. of City Planning. May Tim Keane’s decent to good ideas be embraced in Boise and his wind-blown hair be welcomed there as we know his foresight wasn’t appreciated here! c) What was originally designed as a citizen-led design-informing entity, the Neighborhood Planning Unit system has become more of a performance art that DCP regularly disregards save its occasional rubber stamp for planning. After decades of underfunding and under-resourcing the Department of City Planning, like Atlnata’s Police Dept., is straining to fill necessary staff seats to address the functional needs of the city. Because, why plan ahead when 1975 Atlanta had more population than any more recent Atlanta until 2022.

While the current DCP Commissioner’s staff has “worked” through their backlog of building permits, and trying to hire new urban planners, the citizens of Atlanta have long been trying to address their own needs through Council members. So while Councilman Hillis is deserving of much criticism for his efforts to make Atlanta the most surveilled city in America as well as his leadership efforts on Cop City, I will say his office was quick with responses when I called, a policy analyst for his committee answered the phone herself, and I have written before I believe his seat is solidly safe in his district. 

Unfortunately, this project is only affordable if you make 80% AMI or $77K. For reference, City of Atlanta Councilmembers make $72,360, and the Council President makes $74,400, so none of them would qualify for any of these homes, at least not without a second job. If you keep in mind that the census data for the area is $42K median income you can understand why this is missing the mark by a long shot. I know politics isn’t supposed to include numbers, but they do matter when we’re discussing dollar amounts that qualify people for homes, yes?

Now maybe dear reader, you assert that this is reasonable for a couple moving into the area. This would serve what is known as the “missing middle”- or that starter home that paves the way to home ownership on which the American Dream is built.  Unfortunately, I will remind you that the marriage rate has declined while the never-married rate has increased two-fold, at least according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research (NCFMR). Maybe we’ll assume that even though folks may not be spouses, they can still cohabitate and share a mortgage, though, right? It seems Atlanta is certainly hoping so. 

Let’s move to the deeper end of the pool, with the recent Mayoral announcement of shipping containers placed in Downtown, off Forsyth Street. I thought this was a decent idea. First, this area is largely occupied by parking lots that are paradoxically rarely fully occupied. It’s nothing but dead space in the heart of an otherwise busy sector between City Hall, the Courthouse, Underground, the Gulch, and Castleberry Hill’s artsy galleries. Also, the reprisal of the 90s Captain Planet-approach to recycling and reusing the shipping containers being disposed of by GEMA seems like a responsible management of assets albeit an arrangement that seems to benefit the state more than the city, but ok. It’s my understanding from those who know, that the Mayor has some sort of fixation on shipping containers vs. a made-to-order shelter that is cheaper and faster to set up. It is also my understanding, that these shipping containers cost $50K/ container to retrofit, so I’m thinking that the 100 units the City of Atlanta got for $4M is a volume discount or maybe the previously retrofitted for Covid containers require less costly adaptations for their current use.

This does however, continue to focus the affordable housing in the west and southern sides of the city though, repeating those patterns of red-lining I referenced with ARC maps in a previous piece. I’m not sure how this changes equity across the city.

While I remain frustrated with the inequitable distribution of affordable housing across the city, I can see the benefit of easily serving the area where a fair amount of unhoused folks already exist. I can also appreciate that the Mayor didn’t mind taking this all in himself rather than threading it through Council. I loudly object to Executive Orders in general, but I mean, the buck stops with the Mayor so if he’s going to do something bold, he seems to be at least willing to do it all on his own.

My final concern, which I fear will impact housing and development decisions in the state is Kwanza Hall’s appointment to the Dept. of Community Affairs’ board. Funding for vouchers comes down from the state through DCA, so this tells me Kwanza’s appointment here and his appointment to the Fulton Co Development Authority will be a means of carrying water/ doing favors that I probably won’t like. You may be familiar with his ex-wife, as she’s recently graced the AJC following the lurid details of her affair/ allegations of sexual harassment with her Chief of Staff. I guess this was part of her so-called “[broken]heart work” she LOVES to post about on the socials. Thankfully, due to redistricting, she’s no longer my Commissioner!

I don’t know a lot about affordable housing, but I do know the City of Atlanta is more keen on making money and having a splashy social media presence than caring about its citizens. The other thing I know is that my governmental systems aren’t supposed to be so complicated one cannot easily follow them. Like the Mayor, I too have an MPA from GSU and any elected official who stands before me knows I can ask decent enough questions to connect dots. Affordable housing in Atlanta just appears to be another shell game here that allows state and local entities to skim off the federal government in a variety of ways. It isn’t clear to me that these efforts will do much other than achieve some policy through publicity and ribbon cutting that benefits the electeds more than citizens. 

Ultimately, the challenge before the most vulnerable in Atlanta doesn’t appear to be a lack of resources or funding. It appears more that it’s the age-old aspect of everyone is on the take rather than being devoted to actually solving problems. 

There is an example I’d like to see proliferate. It’s taken a few years for me to learn about it, but I’ll share here what I know, how I learned it, and why I hope leaders across Georgia will look into it. I learned about the work of The Guild a few years back, in a neighborhood called Capitol View. The Partnership for Southern Equity did a walking tour through the area and I learned about how the community members raised funds to purchase a building within its confines. The building was placed into a trust and is maintained by the community. Subsequently, I was in a leadership class that the Dept. of City Planning put on and while I didn’t learn much about engaging the community or even how planning was supposed to work, I did have the good fortune of meeting a few community leaders whose visions I deeply valued. 

Additionally, following my last piece that discussed the Lakewood Heights School debate, Rose Scott’s “Closer Look” just *happened* to host one of her “Coffee Conversations” in Lakewood Heights at Black Coffee, with this developer present. Here’s a link to the recording. There’s also a bit about the Bowen Homes project in here as well, which has a distinctly different sound/ approach than the Lakewood Heights one. One clearly has the community involved, the other, perhaps that’s true, but the interview is definitely being conducted with a single person. While there was no disclosure of APS Board of Education’s connection to WABE was disclosed (APS Board of Ed holds WABE’s license), you will hear Zach Murray, of Lakewood Heights Neighborhood Association discuss The Guild’s work. So, I reached out and learned of one of The Guild’s community events over in Pittsburgh Yards coming up.

Essentially, The Guild does outreach to the community to meet with them to decide asset location on a neighborhood scale- their pilot project will end up being about $11M in sunk costs, raised by community members and grants. They work with the community to buy the land and adapt/ reuse the asset to whatever the community wants- in their pilot’s case, a grocery with a few multi-family housing units above. The community forms a trust, which then owns the llc that owns the property, and maintains the units at 60% and 80% AMI, along with housing vouchers for reaching lower AMI thresholds. The Guild’s method allows the asset and its living units to be kept off the private market for the length of the trust. Additionally, The Guild works with the community members (based primarily on zipcode) to leverage the equity for either other community needs, based upon bylaws established by the community. It also provides a decent return for community investors in the project throughout the trust. I love the returns and the community ownership. This is generational wealth building that focuses on growing specifically Black and brown folks’ wealth, all determined by their own communities’ efforts. Essentially it’s some Socialists/ Communists using Capitalism against itself. 

I’m here for it. The meeting made my little Home Rule heart soar. It made my doubting Thomas cynic of a husband genuinely curious about their prospectus. We’re a cynical bunch, so this says something. 

This isn’t an idea borrowed from somewhere else, either. This is a uniquely Georgia-born approach. Urban Oasis is a developer I previously wrote about, featured in a Westside Transformation Summit meeting. Joel Dixon is Atlanta born and raised. I would LOVE to see this group’s portfolio grow to include non-urban spaces as well. 

While the City of Atlanta struggles to find it’s feet to lead on any policy issue, The Guild seems to be doing the actual work of addressing housing affordability and generational wealth building. The question I hope state leaders will ask is: how do we do more?

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