From Prologue: Part of the BeltLine mandate is to provide thousands of affordable housing units, but already lower-income residents are being forced out of this neighborhood. In a city with vast economic inequities, it is an issue that will challenge Atlanta in years to come.
From Chapter 4: There are really two Atlantas, black and white, and despite native son Martin Luther King Jr and Atlanta’s central place in the civil rights movement, the racial divide remains an often unspoken aspect of every other issue facing the city, including transportation, housing, food, education, religion, health, and the environment. Today, African Americans live primarily in the southern and western parts of the city and whites to the north and east. The BeltLine will connect them all and promises, at long last, to promote mixed-race neighborhoods and equal enjoyment of the trail, transit, and parks, if sufficient affordable housing and jobs accompany the project.
Yet for a city, historical roots continue to influence current behavior and decisions, just as for an individual, childhood experiences remain crucial to adult attitudes. Not all that long ago – about a century and a half – most African Americans living in Atlanta were slaves, the property of white owners who could sell or mistreat them at will.
From Chapter 6: Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
–William Shakespeare, King Lear
As part of my quest to understand my native city, I found my visits in homeless encampments and shelters to be both profoundly disturbing and inspiring, because of the tragedy of the stories I heard and the resilience of the human spirit I encountered. It would take a book in itself to deal adequately with this topic in Atlanta, which is among the worst American cities in terms of the wealth gap between haves and have-nots, but it certainly deserves a chapter.
From Chapter 7: By the summer of 2012, new apartments and loft buildings were beginning to pop up near the Eastside Trail and the park. Many of the residents were hip, young, and single, attracted by the walkable lifestyle. These so-called Millennials, mostly white, were raising the property values and rents in the traditionally black Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. The BeltLine staffers were well aware that gentrification could displace poorer African Americans, but there was little they could do to prevent the process. True, 15 percent of the TAD funds — $8.8 million from the first bonds — were set aside to support affordable housing, but even with an extra stipend, most developers were loath to commit the hot new units to such purposes. And unless they were forced to do so by mandatory inclusionary zoning or other such legislation, it was unlikely they ever would.
Instead, next to the future BeltLine on Memorial Drive, ABI took advantage of a former Triumph Motorcycle factory, now a nearly completed condo building that had gone into foreclosure in the recession. In September 2011, the BeltLine organization bought it for $3.7 million and prepared the units for sale. The two-bedroom Lofts at Reynoldstown, named for the neighborhood, were snapped up by qualified families, including police, firefighters, and teachers, who made no more than 80% of the area median income (AMI). They were able to buy the condos for $90,000 to $150,000 instead of market prices that ran over $200,000.
ABI slowly doled out other affordable housing money for down payment assistance to families who could earn no more than $68,300, had good credit, and had $1500 to contribute to the closing. Although ABI didn’t buy any more condo buildings, it was able to offer help to qualified buyers at the lower end Sky Lofts condos that opened in late 2011 in the West End neighborhood.
Such assistance reached only a small number of people, however, who were middle income rather than poor, and the housing was not guaranteed to remain affordable forever.
From Chapter 8: Atlanta still has startling health disparities. Not surprisingly, the wealthier, whiter north and east sides have better health outcomes in virtually every category, while the poorer, blacker south and west sides suffer from more environmental pollution, inadequate nutrition, and shorter life expectancies.
From Chapter 11: Katie Delp was the FCS executive director, while Jeff ran the day-to-day operations, including the thrift shop, coffee shop, and bike repair outlet, all started by FCS in the defunct Carver Theater building, which had become a liquor outlet and crack cocaine hangout before it was abandoned altogether. FCS is slowly helping to transform the neighborhood, though it has a long way to go. “We’ve built about 40 affordable homes,” Jeff Delp explained, “with zero interest mortgages.” Habitat for Humanity has also built homes there. “In the last six years, we rehabbed and flipped houses to bring in market-rate families, to create mixed income blocks.” In 2008, about half of the homes in South Atlanta were vacant. Now the vacancy rate was only 15%.
“Yes, we are slowly gentrifying the neighborhood, but in a good way,” Delp said. “Young professional African-Americans are moving here, finding good prices on homes.” Gentrification itself is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Delp, who cited studies showing that the process generally helps residents who have at least graduated from high school. Years from now, when the paved BeltLine finally sweeps past South Atlanta, Delp thinks it will spawn businesses other than the current impoundment lots, junk yards, and trash recyclers. “By the time my son is 16 (in nine years), I hope I don’t have to buy him a car, because he can ride his bike on the BeltLine.”
From Chapter 12: A few months later, that family was evicted. Angel Poventud posted on Facebook: “This boy, his mom and his 10 siblings’ stuff was all out in the front yard getting rained on. Such mixed emotions. Those kids, I’ve worked with most of them the last three years around the house, with their bikes, and on the BeltLine cleaning up, paying them with my time, water, soda, and some extra money here and there. The house was a problem for the street, no question, but those kids. Uprooted once again.” Such disturbing evictions were likely to continue as the Westside Trail was completed, unless more progress on affordable housing occurred.
From Chapter 15: As I first noted in the Introduction, Atlanta is a city on the verge of becoming a great place to live and work, with sufficient density, multi-use trails, and public transit. Especially through the BeltLine project, it is in the process of remaking itself, connecting disparate neighborhoods while encouraging development and a booming economy. If they can make it come true in Atlanta, they can make it anywhere, providing a model for the rest of the country.
But there is also a possibility that Atlanta is on the verge of falling once more into over-hyped mediocrity, as city leaders grasp at grand-sounding ad hoc plans that do little to change the city’s fundamental inequities and inefficiencies.
If the Westside Future Fund miraculously transforms these devastated neighborhoods into desirable communities, will that mean that current inhabitants will be pushed out? “I’ve not heard concretely how you have this level of development without displacement,” an activist observed at the introductory informational meeting. While gentrification may generally help those with high school diplomas, that doesn’t include many who are stuck in generational poverty, whether it be in South Atlanta, Peoplestown, Pittsburgh, Washington Park, Grove Park, Vine City, or English Avenue.
Mandatory inclusionary zoning, which forces developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in any new project, is no silver bullet, but it would provide a fundamental foundation for assuring that every development offers decent homes or apartments to low and middle income city residents. In his 2016 State of the City address, Kasim Reed, not hitherto noted for paying much attention to the poor, surprised his audience by citing the need for affordable housing. “I’m committed to an inclusionary zoning effort,” he said. “It might be controversial for a city like Atlanta – but it’s the right thing to do.”
City council member Andre Dickens agreed, noting that luxury rental units comprised 95% of those built in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014, with many more in the pipeline. It was essential, he wrote, to require new residential developments “to dedicate affordable units for our workforce — I want our teachers, police, nurses and office admins to have the choice to live in the communities they serve.”
But it isn’t just middle-class employees who need help. I emailed Dickens: “I hope that you will have a sliding scale of affordability that includes people who are really poverty-stricken, such as many of the people who live in Atlanta’s most devastated neighborhoods on the south and west side.” He answered that it was “extremely tough to incentivize developers” to include truly impoverished residents. But it seems to me that demanding true affordability for all would create a level playing field for developers. They might scream and yell, but they would be forced to obey the law and could continue to profit by charging higher prices and rental rates for luxury homes and apartments. Otherwise, well-meaning affordability efforts such as those of the BeltLine organizations, Invest Atlanta, the Atlanta Housing Authority, and the Federal Home Loan Bank will make only a dent in the problem.
* [FOOTNOTE: A more effective approach would require a federal policy change to provide housing vouchers for every family below the poverty line. Currently, only a limited number of such “Section 8” vouchers are issued. The family would pay 30 percent of its income towards housing, with the voucher covering the rest.]