Opinion: City should go bigger on housing, economic development efforts

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Earlier this year, the City of Atlanta released its One Atlanta Economic Mobility, Recovery and Resiliency Plan, providing a helpful framework for how the city can move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic downturn.

The document’s strategic goals are admirable – and even, incontrovertible – however the actions outlined for achieving those goals fail to push the city and region to its full potential. 2020 is not a time for “business as usual.” Cities around the country are seizing this unprecedented moment to create a better “new normal,” whether committing to pay reparations for slavery, issuing ambitious housing plans, or increasing funding commitments to infrastructure even in the midst of a fiscal crunch. To truly claim its title as the Capital of the New South, Atlanta too must chart a more-just and resilient vision for the future.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Inclusive workforce development, plentiful affordable housing, and a dynamic innovation economy are all essential to Atlanta’s long-term prosperity. The plan’s prescriptions for all three policy arenas, however, are too timid. Take job creation, for example. As the plan describes in its opening pages, a staggering 167,000 households in the city are at risk of falling below the living wage threshold due to job losses. In the face of that need, the plan’s goal in part calling for providing paid work experience to 150 recently laid-off individuals and tech training to 450 out-of-work Atlantans is just a drop in the bucket. The plan’s definition of a “good job” as earning between $40,000 and $80,000 is similarly disappointing when you realize that households earning $40,000 can barely afford average rent in the city. Other cities around the country are exploring innovative ways to promote access to growing industries, including forging pipeline partnerships between major employers and community colleges and making economic development incentives contingent on enforceable workforce commitments. Atlanta should do the same.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Housing is another area where the plan could go bigger. According to a 2017 analysis, more than 100,000 renters in Atlanta pay too much for housing – including more than half of the renters of color in the city. Given the housing crunch, the plan’s goal of relieving cost burdens for 2,475 households over three years seems inadequate. Meanwhile, the plan’s target of providing 450 affordable homeownership opportunities is less than half that set by Boston, a city of similar size, in its recent housing plan. Although City Hall’s recent announcement of a $50 million affordable housing bond issuance is a step in the right direction, this represents only half of an initially planned $100 million commitment, and only 5% of the City’s previously stated goal of raising $1 billion in public and private funds for affordable housing. What Atlanta really needs is a housing trust fund supplemented by annual commitments; the bond-based approach, by contrast, is just a one-off. More promising is the administration’s recently announced plan to rezone large swaths of the city to legalize duplexes, which would significantly increase citywide housing capacity.

Strategic regional partnerships could also supercharge the impact of local investments. The Atlanta metropolitan area is home to a dynamic array of higher education institutions, which could be better leveraged to uplift access to opportunity. Rowen, a new innovation district located in Gwinnett County, is just one example of this sort of regional collaboration at work, bringing county government together with leading universities to promote the growth of the innovation economy. By 2035, Rowen is estimated to generate some 18,500 jobs, many of which – with the right educational and mobility investments – could be made available to out-of-work Atlantans. Other emerging tech hubs, like Washington, D.C., are taking precisely this approach to better network higher ed, industry and government in the service of an expanded talent pipeline.

Atlanta is well-positioned to lead the way in equitable economic development. The city has been home to countless trailblazers in business and politics. Atlantans have also raised the bar on inclusive urban planning in recent years, through projects like the Beltline, the Atlanta Land Trust, and the Westside Future Fund. Following a year of unparalleled turbulence – and with a new administration entering the White House – we believe there is more that the city’s recovery plan can do to deliver on that promise.

Mason Ailstock and Stan Wall are partners with HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm working in real estate and economic development. Ailstock is project manager for Gwinnett County’s Rowen effort.