Home affordability concerns prompt BeltLine leader to resign

What: Atlanta BeltLine.

Origin: Conceived by Ryan Gravel in 1999 while a student at Georgia Tech.

Goal: Connect 22 miles of abandoned railway as trails, parks and transit.

2017 Budget: $68.7 million

Affordable housing: 560 as of 2016. Goal is to have 5,600 by 2030. Beltline officials hope to raise $7.5 million for incentives to build affordable units as part of $50 million in new bonds.

When Ryan Gravel came up with the idea to turn Atlanta blight into trails, greenspace and transit in the heart of the city nearly 20 years ago, he imagined people of all income levels living near the development.

But as the Atlanta Beltline has grown in popularity, so has the problem of affordable housing and not enough is being done to keep prices in check, Gravel said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.

He cited that as the reason for his decision to resign Monday from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership, the Beltline’s fundraising arm. Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, an organization that tries to help the working poor in metro Atlanta, stepped down for the same reason. The resignations were announced in the same letter.

“This has been weighing on us for a long time,” Gravel said in the Tuesday. “If you talk to people out in the city, affordability is weighing heavy on them.”

Earlier in the day, he wrote on his personal website, "While this was not an easy decision for either one of us, our earnest hope is that it not be construed as a lack of support for the project. Rather, we hope it is the beginning of a more robust and effective coalition of voices that can ensure that the project's full, inclusive vision is realized."

The news came as a shock to many.

This “will serve as a wake up call,” said Michael Koblentz, chairman of the Northwest Community Alliance neighborhood association, which has advocated for affordable housing in downtown Atlanta neighborhoods. “I hate to see him have to go that far to make that message.”

Mayor Kasim Reed, who also has been an advocate for affordable housing, declined to comment Tuesday about the resignations.

Gravel came up with the idea of linking multiple neighborhoods with a new transit system along the rail corridors while a graduate student at Georgia Tech in 1999. The Beltline, which will be a 22-mile loop through the city when it is finished around 2030, has reinvigorated blighted areas and attracted new development.

Just earlier this month, the Beltline was featured on the front page of The New York Times. Gravel had been traveling promoting the project, speaking over the past few weeks at the Detroit Design Festival and to students at the University of Oklahoma.

The popularity of the Beltline has raised concerns that current residents could be displaced, especially in the Old Fourth Ward area where crumbling buildings and deserted industrial buildings have given way to new upscale apartments and Old Fourth Ward Park.

At least three housing projects — two apartment buildings and one townhome community — are under construction on Ralph McGill Boulevard and Glen Iris Avenue. Parts of the popular Masquerade music venue have been demolished to make way for a mixed-use community.

At a meeting earlier this month Atlanta Beltline CEO and president Paul Morris said the project was at “an inflection point” because housing is close to becoming unaffordable.

Emory University economist Tom Smith said avoiding price increases will be difficult. Without the city or other agencies stepping in and putting in price controls, incentives to set aside affordable units or outright buying land, developers will rely on the market to dictate how much they charge.

“Part of the problem is, if you design something that adds a lot of value to a neighborhood, property values are going to increase,” he said.

Representatives of Atlanta Beltline have said they hope to raise $7.5 million to encourage affordable housing development by offering builders tax credits. But Gravel and Smith said it is not enough.

“The recent announcement of $7.5 million from TAD bonds, for example, will likely support fewer than 200 affordable units out of ABI’s obligation to 5,600 – it is a drop in the bucket when compared to the need,” the pair said in their letter.

“As the economy roars back to life and growth in the city accelerates, this work is increasingly urgent and we feel strongly that our attention must be channeled directly toward it,” they said.

Terry Tucker, a chief strategy officer for non-profit help organization City of Refuge, said the Beltline offers great opportunities to revive neighborhoods that have been ignored for generations, but advocates for keeping residents in their homes will have to think strategically to balance all interests.

“With the right developers, it could be a fantastic partnership,” he said.