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Opinion - Build, AHA, build

Housing authority could tackle affordability in O4W, Grant Park

Rents across Atlanta are skyrocketing. There is a housing shortage, and housing in many neighborhoods is unaffordable for middle class people. Between 2007 and 2014, median rent in the city increased by almost 16 percent. At the same time, median household income declined.

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Now is a crucial time for housing in Atlanta. The core of the city should not turn into a playground for the wealthy. If low-income families are forced out of the urban core, they will be out of reach of the amenities and public transit access that makes intown living so desirable. For households without cars, suburbia's auto-dependent environment can make it impossible to travel for jobs, fresh food, and other amenities.

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Planners and policymakers are debating ways to address Atlanta's affordable housing issues, including considering inclusionary zoning. This would require developers to make a percentage of new housing units affordable.

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But a local government agency, one whose mission has always been affordable housing, can and should play a role. The Atlanta Housing Authority should take action in the redevelopment of our intown neighborhoods, particularly in areas that are growing increasingly unaffordable on the Eastside. Officials can foster the development of more affordable housing and businesses that provide amenities for people from all walks of life.

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Today, AHA is sitting on nearly seven acres of empty land in two booming Eastside neighborhoods: Old Fourth Ward and Grant Park. Based on current zoning, this land could be home to more than 1,500 residents, all of whom would live within a 10-minute walk of a transit station.

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AHA's mission is "to provide quality affordable housing in amenity-rich mixed-income communities for the betterment of the community." Instead of providing affordable housing, the AHA's inaction is creating eyesores in our neighborhoods. Why is this land sitting vacant with no clear redevelopment plans? And why has AHA not contacted surrounding communities about what kind of development we would like to see?

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Of the seven vacant acres controlled by AHA, most of the land is across the street from the King Memorial MARTA station, on Hilliard Street. Much of this land used to be the Antoine Graves senior housing buildings. The AHA razed the housing in 2010, and has let this prime real estate sit fallow and fenced-off for the past five years. Current plans consider one parcel to be used for a new Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. natatorium.

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In those same five years, MARTA hired a developer to create new housing and retail south of the railroad tracks. The transit agency organized a meeting to give the community details about the redevelopment plans. MARTA included a developer representative in the meeting so the firm could hear suggestions and concerns. AHA could take a hint from MARTA's transit-oriented development and community engagement strategies.

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In 2009, AHA, using the name Westside Revitalization Acquisitions, LLC, paid $750,000 to purchase a property at 20 Hilliard St. S.E. This property includes the historic Trio Laundry building, a contributing structure to the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Landmark district. After paying three times the assessed price, AHA neglected the property for years. Despite interest from local business owners and artists, AHA left the structure boarded-up and vacant. The Trio would have been demolished in 2014 if preservationists and activists had not caught wind of it.

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AHA owns multiple vacant parcels along Memorial Drive, including near Oakland Cemetery. Memorial Drive is seeing a surge of interest from the private and public sectors — local businesses are booming, developers are repurposing historic structures into mixed-use developments, and the extension of the Atlanta Beltline's Eastside Trail is on its way. But AHA has given little signal about new housing so that families living on lower incomes can enjoy these amenities as well.

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There are many options for the seven acres in Old Fourth Ward and Grant Park, and AHA can continue using public-private partnerships to creates walkable, mixed-income neighborhoods. AHA should be commended for developments like Auburn Pointe and Capitol Gateway, which are planned and operated by private-sector partners that create safer, more diverse neighborhoods than the projects they replaced.

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But there is room for improvement. AHA can take some ideas from the community engagement tactics of MARTA and Atlanta Beltline, Inc. AHA can be more transparent in the purchasing, redevelopment, and selling of its land. It can hold regular community meetings and use social media to gauge residents' thoughts, and use that feedback to create and update redevelopment plans.

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It is somewhat understandable that AHA did not move on these properties during the Great Recession. Today is a different story. Development is booming in Atlanta, and rents are higher than they have ever been. AHA can support existing residents and keep people from being displaced. Atlanta and the authority need to start working now to prevent an affordable housing crisis.

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Instead of letting historic buildings crumble and prime intown real estate sit empty for years, AHA needs to be more active and transparent in the redevelopment of its land. It should do so before the current real estate cycle ends, so its properties do not gather dust for another five years.

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Sinan Sinharoy is a local planner and engineer.



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