On The Menu

In my last piece, I discussed the need for ethics reform within the City of Atlanta. As luck would have it, a recent appointment to the Office of Inspector General gives me an unusual opportunity to talk about this in detail and how the City of Atlanta both misses the mark and compounds its own problems seemingly perpetually. It’s a piece I don’t enjoy writing, though, as it involves someone I would like to call a friend. If I’m being candid, I usually sit with my head in my hands and wonder how in Sam Hill the city government can fail so incredibly spectacularly. (We’re on week three of my recycling not being picked up by DPW). It’s almost like they like to fail and do it for flair. Or maybe the City of Atlanta is just reactive, and doesn’t think about optics.  IDK. Like many pieces before, I’ll use the NPU system to break down how the city’s poor attempts come up so miserably short in application yet are somehow completely legal. I hope this can shed light on how the grift works here, what impact this has on the city with the widest income gap in the nation, and how we can make changes that can move the needle. Until that change occurs, there is ample opportunity for The Grifter With No Name.

I’ve written quite a bit about APAB (Atlanta Planning Advisory Board) and its history of personal influence that has manipulated appointments to the Atlanta Citizens Review Board, blocked or slow-walked appointments, and how the past President used her own pettiness to interfere with other city boards. Most recently, APAB appointed a representative from NPU K (the NPU in which I reside) to the Office of Inspector General, which is the ethics entity in the City of Atlanta. One might see this and think I would be elated. Sadly, no, dear reader. 

Let me explain why this makes me weary. 

In the last year, to keep me off APAB, the NPU Director (not a board member) led the board on a change of their own existing bylaws, namely to address removing me as a voting member. You see, something many folks within the City of Atlanta know is that it has been both the practice of APAB and an existing bylaw loophole that allows members willing to serve any NPU in the city. I have served as APAB representation for NPU K, NPU D, and NPU C. APAB members are appointed by NPU Chairs, so when the current NPU K Chair didn’t appoint me, she appointed another white person for diversity of an otherwise all-Black-board, a developer, who resides in the Old Fourth Ward (O4W) but has a development within NPU K. This is completely normal and above board, as far as the City of Atlanta is concerned. Please let me explain. 

The NPU K Bylaws, using municipal code as a guide, defines membership within the NPU system as: 

“Eligible members shall be any person 18 years of age or older whose primary place of residence is within the NPU K designated area or a representative of any corporation, organization, institution, or agency which owns property or has a place of business of profession within NPU K designated area. All eligible members shall have one vote (1) vote (Article II, Sec. 1).”

So even though APAB completely remade their bylaws to reduce the membership number, thereby reducing citizen input, AND reducing the opportunity for folks to serve outside where they reside, this man lays his head in another NPU, makes his money by seeking tax abatements from governmental authorities within the city, benefits from zoning decisions made by the City of Atlanta AND now he’ll be defining our “ethics”. 

Do you see how under any other circumstances this might be considered a conflict of interest?

And look, I hate writing this because frankly, I like this guy. He’s the quintessential “nice guy.” I’m not going to share his name because a) you can look that up and b) this is an open secret at APAB and NPU K, and c) I don’t wish for the man to be removed- I just wish to offer another example of why Atlanta can’t seem to get out of its own way to, IDK, solve its own problems.  Writing this piece isn’t about him- it’s about the problems Atlanta doesn’t seem to want to fix and how the City of Atlanta doesn’t really serve its people- it likes to serve businesses. I haven’t written about this before because, again, I like this guy. At this point though, if I didn’t point this out, I would be giving him a pass I haven’t given the previous APAB President, and that doesn’t sit right with me.

And that’s the funny thing about laws and ethics- we are all supposed to be equal under them and beholden to them. 

Just because this guy uses his privilege to give back to foundations and has moved in many of the same circles I have should not get him a pass, if I’m being honest with myself. We have more in common than we do not. And what I know about those privileged circles that many a Peach Pundit reader also moves in, is we like to perpetuate our own. Amirite or amirite? This MIGHT also be what perpetuates the systems that maintain the widest income gap in a city nationwide. Hmmmm?

The differences we do have are rather glaring though. 

Namely, I’ve never sought to make money in the place where I have represented while in APAB. I also didn’t go into the family business of public finance. 

And look, no one gets to choose their parents or the situation in which they grow up. I just think we know these things matter in how we perceive whether change is necessary and what change we value or do not. Perhaps his lived experience is different from mine and he is fully aware of how zoning decisions impact the heat and health of cities and how those decisions impact health disparities in Atlanta. For me, I had to learn from the folks around me in my neighborhood about how long our basements have been flooded because of poor City of Atlanta watershed management or how common the fires are in the older, investor-owned homes that haven’t been kept up to code. Yesterday morning, I served breakfast to a mentally unstable man who is housed in the unlicensed rooming home in the neighborhood across the street from mine because this is what his family can afford right now to care for him until we can get him into a more stable housing program. These are things I know I had to learn from the experience of living where I do. 

I also want to make certain it is fully understood – this guy’s appointment as APAB representation for NPU K was not solely his choice- that responsibility rests entirely with NPU K’s current Chair. And who would blame the man for wanting to influence the game he plays for work? Something about if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, probably goes here. And again, none of this is against the law or violates the City Code of Ethics. In fact, if you look at his ethics disclosure, you’ll notice the zipcode used is his business- so he’s being consistent with his NPU representation. The reason I know this isn’t where he resides is because Atlanta is just another small town and we have mutual friends.

The problem isn’t his ethics – it’s their absence from the City of Atlanta. In fact, he’s doing what many have done before him. I’m sure if I did some research, I could find there’s a long line of instances like this, similar to how the Dept. of Planning serves as a revolving door for employees-turned-consultants who then partner with developers to navigate the bureaucracy that exists here, much like state employees become lobbyists. This is the City’s faulty definition of residency, where they place businesses on the same field as citizens on the field of ‘community voice’. 

Can we be honest and ask, do you readers think of Coca Cola or Georgia Tech as being equal to John Doe in the NPU meetings? 

That’s why I don’t think Atlanta changes by electing new people. It’s also why I don’t think Mayor Dickens will be as solid of a leader of the ARC as he could be. I’d wager many metro counties think Atlanta should take care of their own challenges before Mayor Dickens tells them how to fix theirs. Instead, I’d offer Mayor Michael Caldwell as an example of a metro Mayor that seems to embrace business and density in his city core while also valuing transparency, and community voice. To minimize the perception of monetary influence, Mayor Caldwell mails a check back to his donors after every election because he doesn’t see a need in keeping a war chest on hand. IDK; I don’t reside in Woodstock, so perhaps someone should ask them. 

I tend to think Atlanta’s challenges will only be addressed when Mayor Dickens values citizens over corporations here. And, of course, who is sitting at the decision making tables matter what and how those changes are made. This residency definition is Atlanta’s own Citizens United vs. FEC, and this is how the ‘Atlanta Way’ is a baked into a part of our process here. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see that sort of thing flying in Woodstock. 

I think I know how the Cop City debacle is perceived outside the city- ‘it’s a losing battle’, or ‘the powers that be have decided’, or even, ‘don’t you want better policing?’

But the reality is, Cop City is just another issue in slew of bad zoning decisions made by the City of Atlanta that sacrifices citizen livelihood for questionable businesses gains. Does anyone remember the Gulch deal? The Beltline SSD? The Mercedes Benz stadium? The refusal to update the area around the Ted that led to the Cobb County Braves?

This isn’t to say I don’t value academic and professional knowledge, either. I originally got an MPA because I thought it would help me to follow budgets and understand following public money. However, I have found in my career that degrees and knowing how a system work is definitely a helpful tool, yet it is not the only tool in the toolbox. Relationships also matter a helluva lot at the Capitol as they do in business. They make money and process move or stop, depending upon the relationship.

I learned a long time ago to listen to the folks on the ground, who were educated in the school of hard knocks, and I wish Atlanta would do more of that. 

As Americans, we used to value a hard work ethic over the elite status of the well-born. I feel like there’s been a few revolutions that solidified this ideal of meritocracy. Something about ‘taxation without representation’ and ‘liberté, egalité, et fraternité’, While I don’t wish to present that I unilaterally hate developers, and again, I genuinely like this man, I care less and less what developers think and more what citizens who live in the area might propose. I find people know what they need and they don’t need to incorporate a business in Delaware through Harvard’s business platform to address affordable housing. IJS.

Atlanta has long been “planned” by developers’ influence rather than by its citizens’. Maybe it’s time we try something different. Maybe, just maybe, we will reduce the existing traffic challenges, overwhelming unhoused population, infrastructure strain, and shoddy code enforcement that surrounds us. If Atlanta wants to right these wrongs of its past, it will need to empower citizens over corporations. It will also have to recognize the intrinsic value of its citizens’ voices over those of the well-heeled. 

In the meantime, the city has a few tracks they’re using to address affordable housing. I believe whoever is at these tables will decide in which direction they will go. One was started by Mayor Reed. He entered into an intergovernmental agreement for affordable housing between the Beltline, the City of Atlanta, and APS. Here’s an AJC article from 2014 highlighting the timeline of the agreement

This is the first amendment.

This is the state legislation that enabled the taxes to be collected because otherwise, it wasn’t solvent.

This is the second amendment.

There may be other amendments, but I’m not sure. I was looking for the IGA referenced recently in the APS State of the District, you know, because I’m also a parent and we send FK to our local public school and we pay attention. The intergovernmental agreement I was looking for seems to be between APS and AUDC specifically. 

This is the legislation that created the Atlanta Urban Development Corporation. It’s pages 287-296 of the link. BTW-if you’re ever trying to easily find things like this on City Council’s website, it’s pretty horrendous. Believe it or not, legis.ga.gov is better. Like, leaps and bounds ahead in technology.

I wrote previously about APS preserving Lakewood Elementary, a historic school in Lakewood Heights. I attended an Atlanta Preservation Center presentation about preserving certain schools and potentially reusing those spaces. That presentation can be found here.Here’s the Saporta Report article that references saving certain schools. Here’s the explanation of the plan.

It involves the newly created AUDC and it seems this is the Mayor’s way of addressing the goal of getting to 20K affordable housing units by 2030. It’s essentially doing East Lake all over again, just leveraging APS properties. 

The properties and their purpose are listed in the IGA:

“WHEREAS, the 0 Johnson Road NW property is an undeveloped and underutilized site abutting the Proctor Creek Greenway and easily accessible to Westside Park, which the City desires to redevelop into mixed-income housing whose residents can benefit from these public amenities and investments; 

and WHEREAS, the 2140 Alvin Dr NW property is an underutilized, former public park abutting Proctor Creek, which the City desires to redevelop into a mix of uses including mixed-income housing and improved parks and greenspace; 

and WHEREAS, the 170 10th St NE property is the site of an aging Atlanta Fire Rescue Department (AFRD) fire station that is in need of renovation and/or reconstruction, which the City desires to redevelop into a world-class fire station topped by high-density mixed-income housing in a walkable, transit-accessible, high-opportunity neighborhood; 

and WHEREAS, 0 New Town Cir SE is an undeveloped and underutilized property identified in the proposed Thomasville Heights Neighborhood Plan as a key element of a phased, master-planned, holistic community revitalization program, which can accommodate mixed-income housing and greenspace;”

Both noting the locations and the price points that some of the documents reference, these all seem to be aimed at workforce housing rather than deeply affordable housing, and (of course) none of it is north of 10th in Midtown or east of Piedmont. 

Housing is generally an exploitative practice here in the city state. From investor-owned rental homes, and veterans’ homes, to group homes, it seems the city leaves the monitoring of these to the state and feds. I wonder how many health indicators would improve if the City of Atlanta or state just held these locations accountable to current law. You know, kinda like how the gun folks are clamoring to enforce existing laws first and then talk about making new ones. I had hoped the nonprofit focused on housing might address this. But it seems they’re more focused on mixed-income developments generating property taxes for government funds. 

Somewhere, Cousins and Shirley Franklin are smiling and it kinda of makes me nauseous.

One of the questions I posed to Mayor Dickens back in December, the year before last, was regarding equitable distribution of affordable housing around the city, otherwise, we’re repeating redlining under a new name, and continuing the Bill Cambell plan of moving the poor folks out before the Olympics. Just now it’s the World Cup. The affordable housing plan in these documents seems to be repeating the same patterns of locating affordable homes only on the south and west sides of the city.  Only now these are only 60-80% Area Median Income, so not the level of affordability that would be meaningful to maintain the residency of many families living in the area. They will effectively be gentrified out into surrounding areas as the city densifies and climbs in affluence. Hello, Cherokee County!

For all of these reasons, there is a community focus on rental caps (a state issue), gentrification, capping property taxes of senior citizens, $4M in City funds were spent on buying shipping containers to provide houses to our unhoused, and even Old Georgia Baptist’s athletic center is now being used as a means of addressing the health needs of the unhoused.

Pardon me if I don’t think developers are the folks needed at these tables. 

While many Atlantans would love to toss the NPU system altogether, I do not. I believe in the power of community voices, neighborhood mothers, and legacy residents. I’m old school and believe in Home Rule. I don’t think the current Dept. of City Planning is equipped to handle these conversations, but we’re at a critical point and if no one else will say this, I shall. 

I truly don’t understand Mayor Dickens’s or Commissioner Prince’s approaches to anything NPU-related at this point, but now we’re beginning the Comprehensive Development Process all over again. Yippee!! I’ve resigned my opinion that the Commissioner and Mayor are either blindly following the NPU Director’s lead or are too distracted by other things to course correct. I just wait for the administration change and hope we’ll get slightly better. My hope is a future administration will better fund the Dept. of City Planning and will eliminate those that value business over community voices. In the meantime though, we’re doing the same thing and expecting different results. 

What could possibly go wrong?

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”-Michael Enzi.

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