Can anyone stop Atlanta's rapid gentrification?

Tuesday February 3, 2015 10:00 am EST


Gentrification in Atlanta is nothing new. Last year it was named one of seven cities "radically altered" by the trend. Before that dubious honor one filmmaker named his forthcoming gentrification documentary The Atlanta Way. Now a new report makes the case that Atlanta is among the cities hardest hit by the complex confluence of the rising cost of living, reverse white flight, and displacement over the past quarter century.

Governing this month published a study showing that Atlanta — coming in fifth just behind Portland, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, and Seattle — lays claim to one of the nation's highest gentrification rates.

The study, which gathered census data for 50 of the nation's largest cities, examines different census "tracts" — swaths of land that are typically larger than individual neighborhoods, but smaller than counties or Atlanta City Council districts — to determine if they were gentrifying or not. The report didn't look at tracts with fewer than 500 residents. It also only considered tracts where the median household income and home value were both in the bottom 40th percentile of a given metro region.

What did researchers find? The study shows that nearly 17 percent of Atlanta's eligible tracts — including large parts of Cabbagetown, Downtown, East Lake, Grant Park, Old Fourth Ward, Poncey-Highland, and Reynoldstown — experienced gentrification during the 1990s. Over the past 15 years, that figure has exploded with 46 percent of eligible tracts experiencing that trend such as Cascade Heights, East Atlanta, Edgewood, Kirkwood, Lakewood Heights, Old Fourth Ward, Peoplestown, Riverside, and West End.

Put into perspective: Governing recorded national average gentrification rates of 8.6 percent in the '90s and 20 percent since 2000. That means Atlanta is gentrifying at more than twice the rate of the average large American city.

Governing has provided CL with two maps — one from the 1990s and one for the past 15 years — that show Atlanta's gentrifying neighborhoods. We've included those after the jump:

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  • Courtesy Governing
  • Atlanta's gentrification, 1990-2000


  • Courtesy Governing
  • Atlanta's gentrification, 2000-Present

In the big picture, the report notes that gentrification is relatively rare since 2000, occurring in only 8 percent of all neighborhoods that the magazine analyzed throughout the country. Governing cites numerous reasons for gentrification in the cities researchers studied: a growing desire to move back in urban centers, sudden economic growth after stagnant periods, and a rise in a neighborhood's white residents.

However, the report didn't delve into the specific reasons behind Atlanta's rapid gentrification. Governing Data Editor Michael Maciag tells CL that potential increases in education levels, rising housing prices, and infrastructure investment — let's say it all together, now: Atlanta Beltline! — are potential factors affecting the city. And Georgia State University Sociology Professor Deirdre Oakley, who's studied gentrification, says changes in education and income levels are often a sign that new people are moving into a neighborhood, not longtime residents improving their life circumstances.

"Here in Atlanta, traditionally a predominantly African-American city, these neighborhoods aren't just becoming more affluent, they're becoming more white," Oakley tells CL. "The question is: What has that done to the fabric of the community who lived there before these neighborhoods gentrified?"

Local government officials can attempt to address gentrification in a number of different ways. How those initiatives fare is partly based on political will, market forces, and larger economic trends like the Great Recession.

Mayor Kasim Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres tells CL the city has "significant power" to combat gentrification including the use of building permits, tax incentives, and the ongoing sale of its real estate to help guide the right kinds of developments. In addition, Invest Atlanta doled out $68 million worth of incentives last year that are expected to create 1,060 workforce housing units. That cash, Torres says, is being guided to the right kind of developers who will partner with the city to boost its workforce housing stock.

"We have a tremendous say in the outcome of the developments," Torres says. "It's about finding the right developers for the right neighborhoods."

According to Oakley, city governments ultimately have a "vested interest" in gentrification. The reason is simple: higher property values lead to higher taxes, and higher taxes mean more revenue. More revenue allows city governments to spend more cash on its citizens. More spending can be good overall — it helps make projects like the Beltline and Atlanta Streetcar possible — but it can also accelerate gentrification.

There's a downside to that. Though Atlanta might attempt to boost its workforce housing, that kind of policy doesn't necessarily help lower-income residents most affected by gentrification. To change that, Oakley says Atlanta should consider more policies to replenish its existing affordable housing stock, not deplete it for development's sake.

"City Hall can say we're boosting workforce housing," Oakley says. "But it's not going to solve the problem. When neighborhoods start to gentrify, it's a growth machine. Once private capital comes in, it's impossible to stop it without rent control like in New York City. There's no way that'll happen in Atlanta."

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