Affordable housing has largely taken a back seat to violent crime as the dominant issue in the Atlanta mayor’s race.
Residents, and the candidates themselves, say that’s unfortunate because the lack of stable, affordable shelter is an underlying contributor to crime. And it is one of the most complex and urgent problems facing the city as voters pick a new mayor in the Nov. 30 runoff between Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Andre Dickens.
Rent in Atlanta on average costs 30.3% of residents’ median household income, recent Census estimates show. That means Atlantans spend a greater portion of their pay on rent than people in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Charlotte and Seattle, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.
Much of what Moore and Dickens have outlined in their affordable housing platforms is similar.
Both hope to put more money into the city’s housing bond. They propose stalling gentrification through implementing protections for long-term residents. And each says they will continue building on the initiatives started during the Bottoms’ administration.
But Dan Immergluck, an urban housing professor at Georgia State University, says none of those proposals will make much of a dent in the problem until the city fixes its broken tax system: Commercial properties are under-assessed by hundreds of millions of dollars while the county development authority gives tax incentives to builders breaking ground on some of the most desirable land in the Southeast, he said.
“Land values have skyrocketed, yet the city’s coffers have remained stagnant,” Immergluck said. “The reason for that is that the city is not capturing its increased share.”
Immergluck, who advocates more progressive policies when it comes to housing, isn’t satisfied with the proposals by either candidate and says politicians in general give too much deference to the powerful builders lobby at a time when the job-rich city could demand more out of developers.
“The city is kind of stuck in the 1980s politically,” Immergluck said. “It’s stuck in the midframe of a shrinking city that is desperate to get jobs … yet the job creation the city is seeing is putting pressure on the housing market.”
The mayor’s office wields tremendous power when it comes to development, incentives, infrastructure, property tax rates and other matters that affect housing costs. The mayor appoints board members to the Atlanta Housing Authority and sits on Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm.
Addressing the lack of affordable housing was the primary issue in the 2017 mayor’s race, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms squeaked out a win that year in large part thanks to her pledge to generate $1 billion for affordable housing while allowing residents to stay in their homes by stabilizing rising home costs.
The city and its agencies have committed $595.6 million toward 7,010 affordable homes to date, according to the mayor’s office.
Dickens’ housing proposal is more extensive than what Moore has suggested. Their campaign websites indicate this difference: While Dickens has a numbers-focused plan formed under a “Housing” tab, including 20,000 affordable housing units in eight years, Moore’s site has prioritized addressing crime with nothing explicitly stated about housing.
Neither Dickens nor Moore support blanket rezoning — though Bottoms has submitted three such proposals, one of which would allow people to rezone thousands of properties near MARTA stations from single-family residential areas to small apartment buildings.
“It will lead to … gentrification of our neighborhood and the changing dynamics in our neighborhoods,” Moore said.
Both candidates say new housing shouldn’t come at the cost of legacy residents remaining in their homes — easier said than done with a volatile market, developers with deep pockets and no ability to institute restrictions like rent control.
Residents certainly recognize affordable housing as a top issue this year, according to an October poll of 792 likely Atlanta voters commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The poll found only 19% of respondents think the city is on the “right track” regarding affordable housing, compared to a whopping 62% who felt the city is off-track. And 26% of respondents in the same poll said affordable housing was their top issue this year, second to only crime (48%). No other issue polled in double digits.
Moore told the AJC she would try to get in front of gentrification by assessing neighborhoods and giving them grades from A through F, then stabilize communities in the D and F range so they aren’t as enticing to developers. She said it’s possible to start building affordable units around the last quarter of her first year in office.
Moore said she wants to protect legacy residents from increasing taxes, either by extending the exemption the city has on those property owners or by freezing assessed value, “which means we’d have to get other taxing jurisdictions, like the school board and county to work with us.”
“What I want to do is make sure we’re instituting our neighborhood standards program, make sure we stabilize those (deteriorating) neighborhoods so that we can increase the life cycle of that neighborhood and keep it affordable as long as we can,” Moore said at a recent League of Women Voters’ forum.
Dickens has staked his candidacy on the topic. He has proposed creating community benefits agreements and freezing taxes for long-term residents to combat gentrification. His initiatives also include a $250 million housing bond.
“Housing is my issue,” Dickens said. “To be the mayor that brings about more housing affordability than anybody in recent history, I have relationships, I have the policies that have been passed, every time I’ve seen a problem, I rolled up my sleeves and dug in it.”
The councilman said voters should expect tangible changes within his first 100 days in office, during which he plans to develop at least one Atlanta housing site and create an anti-displacement office to assist legacy residents.
“My hope is that in eight years, I’ve worked myself out of a need for government assistance to create affordable housing,” Dickens said.
‘Point of no return’
Charles Blackmon says his home in the Old Fourth Ward is more than a roof and four walls.
The 71-year-old Blackmon said his godmother purchased the house in 1932. Everyone on the block was Black when he moved into the house 43 years ago, when the area was known as Buttermilk Bottom for its pooling water.
Now? Brownstones at Central Park has opened across the street from him. The gated, 38-unit townhome project touts 10-foot ceilings and marble primary bathrooms with attached walk-in closets — and an enclosed saltwater pool.
Homes start in the $600,000 price range.
Blackmon considers himself lucky, temporarily insulated from the gentrification because he doesn’t have a mortgage. But he worries he could be priced out by increasing taxes.
“There’s a point of no return when you retire and are living on fixed income; the exemptions that they allow you really are not based on reality,” he said.
Blackmon voted for Dickens in the first election because he liked his crime and affordable housing policies but is re-examining both candidates through the lens of their plans to combat gentrification.
“I know they have a need to support the system, but you know, why can’t I get a tax break?” he said. “It’d be nothing compared to what you’re giving to the developers.”
Newsroom data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this story.
AJC’s COVERAGE OF ELECTION 2021
Journalists at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are working each day to be an indispensable resource for information about the 2021 election. We are committed to providing comprehensive coverage of the race for Atlanta mayor and all the important local races. In addition to our daily coverage of the campaigns, we have:
• Held a community conversation for all candidates;
• Gone neighborhood by neighborhood talking to voters about their specific concerns;
• Conducted two polls to gauge the thoughts of the electorate;
• Profiled the major candidates for mayor and built a guide for voters.
For more of our comprehensive coverage, please visit: https://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta-mayors-race-2021/