Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Monday unveiled a citywide affordable housing plan, putting into action one of her central campaign pledges – to invest $1 billion in public and private funds to combat rising housing costs and the displacement of longtime residents.
The 43-page document – called the One Atlanta Housing Affordability Action Plan – offers a menu of policy proposals. They range from finding ways to use existing public dollars and land as an incentive to attract private sector investment to changes in zoning, expediting redevelopment of vacant and blighted properties, developer incentives, and the creation of a housing innovation lab.
Supporters called it the most comprehensive housing plan of its type in the city’s history.
But in order to make the proposals a reality, the effort will test Bottoms’ ability marshal the resources of the city, state and federal agencies, as well as local businesses, developers and nonprofits. She will also have to convince the City Council to pass legislation such as zoning changes that might risk running afoul of neighborhood groups.
In the hours after the unveiling, critics of the plan said it was short on details housing advocates said they’d expect for a document presented 18 months into the mayor’s first term. One prominent housing expert said he fears the city’s plans will take too long to deploy and potentially miss the current economic expansion only to face the headwinds of a potential recession.
At a press conference before a ceremonial groundbreaking for Creekside at Adamsville Place, a 147-unit affordable rental development in southwest Atlanta, Bottoms said the document would serve as the framework for how the city deploys $1 billion in public and private funds and create or preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2026.
“Rents are going up in around our city, but the increase in wages is not keeping pace,” Bottoms said. “There’s a growing gap in what people can afford and what people make.”
The city has enjoyed a booming economy and a development surge primarily focused on luxury housing. That’s put a squeeze on renters and homeowners who have seen their property taxes soar. Meanwhile, city agencies failed to fill the gap in new affordable housing development.
The 13 initiatives and 45 other items will require dozens of pieces of legislation, which Bottoms told reporters would be drafted as necessary.
The city and related government bodies control some 1,300 acres, some of which could be used for new development. Bottoms said she would push the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) to redevelop 300 acres of former housing projects into mixed-communities, something she said would create 2,000 new affordable units.
AHA has largely remained on the sidelines during the economic boom, mired in leadership turmoil and lawsuits. The agency also lacks a permanent CEO, a role Bottoms told reporters is a priority to fill.
Other changes could come to zoning and building codes for more flexibility for unique multi-family housing and construction processes. Bottoms also said her administration would explore expansion of inclusionary zoning, which requires developers set-aside a percentage of new rental units as affordable.
“The reality is that no city has gotten this right, and in true Atlanta fashion, I truly believe we will be the first to get it right in terms of the affordable housing challenge across this country,” Bottoms said.
‘Not a moonshot’
Sarah Kirsch, executive director of Urban Land Institute of Atlanta, applauded the plan. She said the plan builds on recommendations of HouseATL, a leadership group that presented more than two dozen proposals to the city last year.
“This is not a moonshot, this 20,000 units,” Kirsch said. But echoing astronaut Neil Armstrong, she called it “a giant leap” for affordability in the city.
Though Atlanta likes to tout its quality of life and affordability to industry, rising rents have squeezed residents as wages for many have stagnated.
Dan Immergluck, an affordable housing expert and a professor at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University, said he was unimpressed by the plan.
“There’s too few details, no firm dollar commitments on different proposals,” he said.
Immergluck said Bottoms is right to want to use local, state and federal dollars to attract private sector resources. But unless the mayor finds significant sources of local funds, Immergluck said she won’t be able to leverage the public dollars very far. He also said AHA’s land should be used to create far more than 2,000 new units.
New construction is needed, Immergluck said, but city could add units faster by creating its own housing voucher program.
As a candidate for mayor, Bottoms also left many housing advocates with the strong impression she would seek mostly new local revenues to build the $500 million in public dollars for her $1 billion housing pledge.
On Monday, Bottoms said she always stated that she intended to use existing dollars to attract private investment while pledging to find new government funding.
The document discusses potential future housing bond programs and exploring potential fees that other cities have enacted to help finance new affordable housing.
Alison Johnson a member of advocacy group Housing Justice League, said she wanted to hear more from the mayor about how she plans to keep longtime renters from being displaced.
Johnson said that the mayor’s anti-displacement efforts mainly focus on protecting homeowners from rising property taxes. In some neighborhoods, particularly south and west of downtown, more than 80 percent of residents rent, Johnson said.
“How are those people going to be protected?” she asked.
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