OPINION: What’s greater in Decatur? The rise in sky-high home prices

In the past, the city has been called the People's Republic of Decatur, but don't let that aside to its left-leaning politics fool you. What's going on here is unbridled capitalism, plain and simple.

The city this week released an "Affordability and Inclusivity" report that said the average home sale price in Decatur is now two-thirds of a million dollars. That's $667,618 for those of you who don't want to do your math. Again, that's the average.

It’s a classic case of supply and demand. Youngish couples with money and kids have been streaming into the city known for its small, but crowded, school system. However, the intown burg of 4.3 square miles has just so many places to live — 10,443 units, according to the report.

So if people with money want to move in, the pressure is on other types to move out — usually folks with limited income, senior citizens and minorities.

Elizabeth Wilson, who will turn 89 this year, fits all three categories. She has lived in Decatur for 54 years and watched as her Oakhurst neighborhood went from white to black to mixed to now mostly white and increasingly tony.

Wilson, the city’s first black commissioner and later its mayor, knew something was afoot about a decade ago when she went for a walk and saw three or four McMansions rising from where 1,200-square-foot bungalows once stood. Back in the day, one could raise four or five children in a cramped three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. But nowadays any self-respecting young professional couple needs at least 4,000 square feet in which to raise their 2.1 kids.

Wilson says older folks are made to feel they dodder in the way of progress. She went to a drawer and dug out a thick envelope containing at least 100 letters, cards and flyers from real estate investors who have been trying to dislodge her from her small brick bungalow, the one she bought for $23,500 in 1977 and now appraises at $393,000, according to tax records.

She dumped the contents on her dining room table and chuckled at the faux friendliness of the investors’ approach: “Dear Elizabeth,” many begin in automated fake handwriting.

“They call saying, ‘I want to buy your house. I saw that Miss So and So sold her house in the neighborhood,’ ” she said. “What makes these real estate people who target us feel like we don’t deserve to be here? It’s so arrogant and disrespectful.”

Sometimes she screams into the phone and tells them not to call again. “Either that or I tell them to give me $2 million and a penthouse,” a place where she’d feel safe like she does in her current home.

“I feel safe. I feel like I’ve had a part in making it safe, in making it a place where people want to live,” Wilson said. “In all our planning, we have forgotten seniors.”

The city fathers — and mothers — haven’t necessarily forgotten seniors as much as they’ve stood by for years and largely watched helplessly as the Darwinian forces of economics have run their course.

It's not that the city has done nothing. It has absolutely studied the heck out of what's been going on. In fact, the recent report indicated there's been more studying of the issue in Decatur than down the road at Emory University. There have been seven studies or reports since 2008. There was the housing study, the strategic plan, the community action plan, the 360 comprehensive plan, the affordable housing analysis, the transformation plan and the 2018 summit report.

"Now is the time for action," Elke Davidson, chair of the Affordable Housing Task Force told Decatur commissioners at a meeting Monday as she handed over the latest report, one that was chock-full of recommendations.

“This is our best shot,” said city Commissioner Tony Powers. “This is not some report that’s going to get thrown in the back room,” indicating that this study — forged by a committee of two dozen Decaturites — would somehow be different from the others.

The study notes that 29% of Decatur households earned north of $150K in 2017, compared to 12% in 2007. (The dollars were adjusted for inflation.) In 2007, 44 percent of Decatur households earned less than $50,000 a year. In 2017, less than a third of the households did. And no doubt it’s kept dropping since.

The task force called for an array of fixes, including property tax abatements to keep existing affordable units, expanding senior tax exemptions, allowing mother-in-law and basement apartments, expanding areas that allow multi-unit structures, and mandating that the loss of affordable housing be considered when developers want to build townhouses.

» ALSO FROM BILL TORPY | Unaffordable housing: Hard to get a grip when in ‘The Squeeze’

The task force determined there were 933 NOAHs, “naturally occurring affordable housing.” And like the fellow with the ark, these NOAHs are similarly threatened by an economic flood.

The report says abatements to save existing affordable units would cost nearly $1 million a year, but it adds that it’s cheaper to preserve such housing than create it. How to pay for this has not been determined.

New Commissioner Lesa Mayer says something must be done this time to slow or reverse the tide. “I ran because I didn’t think the voices of people in houses, in the 2/1 bungalows, were being heard. They didn’t have as much weight in the discussion.”

“I think it kind of reached a tipping point,” Mayor Patti Garrett said after Monday’s meeting. “There’s a realization we have to get something moving.”

"It's past the tipping point," said Sherry Siclair, a longtime Oakhurst resident who is retired and was on the task force until she bumped heads with other members. She flutters between being hopeful and skeptical.

She lives in a tiny house on a long, woodsy lot with a she-shed out back now shadowed by McMansions.

“It’s like the new people don’t have a clue what their presence is. Every footprint is a stomp,” Siclair said, calling it an “epidemic of economic cleansing.”

She said she is often troubled by what a neighbor, a retired teacher, told her: “I know they want us to leave, but I don’t know where they want us to go.”