Following pushback, Dickens adds affordable housing trust fund to proposed budget

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at the Rotary Club Monday, May 2, 2022. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at the Rotary Club Monday, May 2, 2022. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In a reversal, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said Thursday that he plans to include a $7 million contribution from his proposed budget to a trust fund dedicated to affordable housing, following pushback it wasn’t in his initial draft.

The City Council established the fund last year. It aimed to allocate a small percentage of the city’s $734 million general fund to housing efforts. For the first year, 1% would go toward affordable housing, with the allocation eventually increasing to 2%. Dickens voted for the effort as a councilman, and then went on to make affordable housing a major centerpiece of his mayoral campaign.

But housing advocates noticed last week that, in his first proposed budget as mayor, Dickens didn’t include any money for the fund.

The ordinance creating the trust fund requires the city to budget money for it unless the previous year’s revenue surpasses the current year’s revenue, once inflation is taken into effect. That’s the case this year, as inflation has soared.

The mayor’s office initially defended the decision to not budget for the trust fund this year, telling WABE on Wednesday that the city “faces multiple challenges as we exit the pandemic” and pointing to the language in the law about inflation. The same day, Dickens’ office touted new allocations of federal dollars toward housing efforts, as well as a trust fund set up through the Gulch deal negotiated under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration. The investments total over $58 million.

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But Dickens said Thursday that he heard from housing advocates who urged him to include the new trust fund dollars, totaling about $7.3 million for this fiscal year, which begins July 1.

“We heard loud and clear the importance of devoting funding in our new budget to this cause,” the mayor told reporters Thursday. “You don’t have to twist my arm to do more with affordable housing.”

When asked why the trust fund wasn’t included in the first place, Dickens pointed to the $58 million in additional housing allocations, though he said he also understood the significance of starting the trust fund.

The City Council is currently holding hearings on the budget before making amendments and voting on it in June.

Councilman Matt Westmoreland, a sponsor of the ordinance to create the trust fund, said Thursday that the announcement is “incredibly exciting.”

“Mayor Dickens has long been a champion for housing affordability in Atlanta and for the first time in our city’s history, the budget that we adopt will include a local reoccurring funding stream,” Westmoreland said. “That’s some real legacy-building work.”

Veteran Councilman Howard Shook said he questions about the proposal, and he hopes to get answers from the administration in the next week.

”Why do it post-budget release instead of baking it in? I want to confirm that the health of the economy meets or exceeds the trigger thresholds that we put into the ordinance,” Shook said, referencing the inflation considerations.

New Councilman Jason Winston also expressed excitement — and anxiety — about the mayor’s decision.

“I’m just curious to see where the funding is, and anxious to see how we can make sure we make this investment the right way and that it’s going to go for many years to come,” Winston said.

Dickens said the trust funds shouldn’t just be “piggy banks,” saying he wants the city to act faster to spend the money and develop affordable housing. He heralded the first meeting of a new “Affordable Housing Strike Force,” a group comprised of government and nonprofit leaders charged with finding land for more affordable housing. The mayor’s office said the group is already looking at sites that are ready for development and looking into financing options.

“We’re not talking about coming up with some more research, some more studies and more binders (with) hopes and wishes and dreams,” Dickens said Thursday.