It’s a story that we continue to read every time we open a newspaper. Families are priced out of the better-performing school districts because of rising home prices. Employers are having a tough time retaining staff due to rising rental rates. Atlanta’s competitive advantage of affordability may be waning.
Atlanta’s major problems are twofold: The city is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, not yet rivaling other East Coast cities like Washington, D.C. and Boston, but some predict the writing is on the wall. And because people cannot afford to live in the city center or inner-ring suburbs, traffic congestion and lack of transit options are keeping people from getting to their jobs and other opportunities.
Almost 6 million people live and work in the Atlanta region. Atlanta houses fifteen Fortune 500 companies, has built a reputation for a burgeoning tech and film industry, and has the busiest airport in the world. The successes and failures of Atlanta’s next mayor are tantamount to the city’s economic vibrancy, and issues of equity, inclusion, and affordability. Our next mayor has a big aspirational question to answer, like what kind of city we want to be.
To ensure these issues were top of mind for Atlanta’s next mayor, ULI Atlanta hosted a Mayoral Candidate Forum on affordable housing, transportation, infrastructure, and sustainability.
10 of the 16 candidates running joined this conversation with Bill Nigut, a veteran political reporter.
The primary audience for this forum was professionals in land use, real estate, financial services, capital markets, and the public sector – leaders and practitioners who all deeply understand how the next mayor’s policy platform on affordable housing and transit will have a deep impact on their work.
Between rising transportation cost and the limited supply of new homes, practitioners and politicians are beginning to see affordable housing as a multidimensional crisis. It is not just a small segment of the population feeling the pinch. It is a challenge increasingly affecting all Atlantans.
According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, 95% of new production in multifamily units are classified as luxury. What does that mean for economic inequality? Vincent Fort expressed his concerns about the rapid pace that Atlanta is gentrifying. “10 years ago, Atlanta was 20% gentrified and now it’s 70%. Where will the city be in another 4 years?” he said.
Action is needed, but first we must garner broad support.
Keisha Lance Bottoms talked about the need for the City of Atlanta to make the business case for affordable housing. “Developers must have the workforce to populate jobs. When you cannot afford to live here, you lose the backbone of the city.” Often, these workers make-up our most basic and vital services, like firefighters, nurses, and police.
Mary Norwood agrees. “On workforce housing, we need to get people closer to where they work. What about employer assisted workforce housing programs? If you are working in an employment center and you cannot afford to live there, let’s get a subsidized unit.”
It is true that Atlanta’s three core business districts (Buckhead, Midtown, and Downtown) and the neighborhoods that surround them command premium home and rental prices.
And because MARTA is not a truly regional transit system, the adverse effect of not being able to live near an employment center is prominently felt on our roads. Pollution and traffic congestion are two major environmental problems that the next mayor will have to tackle.
Rohit Ammanamnanchi described infrastructure investments as the missing piece. “Our roads are crumbling and we are not building affordable housing that is actually affordable.” he said. How do we fix that?
One way could be coordinating among the various public agencies.
The silos between MARTA, Atlanta Public Schools and the city government can be frustrating, said Peter Aman. “But Atlanta can set the standard. Use specific policy tools like community land trust, community development corporations, and create housing that we need. In other areas, use housing opportunity bonds.”
Al Bartell felt strongly that neighborhood leaders should be included in the public policy process of the city, and that land banking and expanding the low-income tax credit could help.
Ceasar Mitchell expressed the need for building good partnerships and having the Atlanta Housing Authority be more than a landowner, but also an affordable housing producer. Another strong partnership he reiterated? Building better in-roads between the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools. “The Superintendent will sit on my cabinet, and all elements of my platform will include education” he said.
Housing affordability and school performance go hand in hand. When the cost of land is high, it’s typically because you sit in one of the best-performing school districts in the city.
A central theme that ran through the course of the Mayoral Candidate Forum was about creating options for affordability at a range of levels. It encourages diversity and economic mobility. Some researchers have found that the more diverse an economy and the more diverse the housing options, the more prosperous.
When you look at some in-town neighborhoods in Atlanta, you might see the opposite.
On the BeltLine Cathy Woolard said, “we sold parcels of land at market rate when we should have retained it. Use land we do own to put in housing at a range of affordability from Millennials to seniors.”
This means marrying transit, land use, and policy in a comprehensive way to retain true affordability, Woolard argued.
Other solutions discussed were revising Atlanta’s tax policy to encourage people to age in place.
John Eaves explained that the tax assessment system can be a key driver for affordable housing preservation, because it allows people to stay in their homes. “Taxing is the largest issue that causes people to move or lose their homes” Eaves said, “especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.”
As ULI Atlanta Mayoral Candidate Forum proved, addressing the problem of affordable housing requires a coordinated effort, political will, and policies that are people and family centered. There is no silver bullet but the ‘marketplace of ideas’ discussed at the forum is a wonderful place to start.
Almost every candidate talked about Atlanta being a city of opportunity, each with their own unique story as to why. Will the next Mayor find the opportunity to tackle affordable housing and continue to build a vibrant and diverse city? We’ll have to wait a find out.
In the meantime, ULI Atlanta and its membership will continue to work on affordable housing solutions and be available to serve as a resource and partner for our next mayor.
Note: Candidate quotes have been taken from their responses to questions and shortened and editorialized for this blog.
By: Daphne Bond-Godfrey, Director, ULI Atlanta