Councilmember, advocates: Beltline developments must include affordable housing

‘Nowhere are our efforts needed more than around the Beltline’

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As the Atlanta Beltline snakes its way around the city, the path’s development-inspiring abilities are boosting property values. In the process, rents are going up, pricing out low-income people from nearby communities. According to community leaders, local politicians, and residents alike, that trend needs to stop.

Whenever cities plop down green space and transportation infrastructure projects like the Beltline, neighboring property becomes the most desireable in town, according to William McFarland, relationship manager for Georgia ACT, an organization focused on housing equity and community development.

“The public investment we’re making in transportation and green infrastructure is really just driving a private real estate market that maximizes profit to the exclusion of affordability,” he says.

It’s a common refrain to hear people say rents are rising or out of reach along the Eastside Trail and in popular neighborhoods such as Midtown and the Westside. McFarland claims some landlords are increasing rent prices, driving out people living on low incomes to make room for people who can pay more. He says property values are rising in southwest Atlanta neighborhoods such as Ashview Heights, West End, and Adair Park, where Beltline construction crews are laying pavement.

“Nowhere are our efforts needed more than around the Beltline,” McFarland tells CL. “It’s already happened on the eastside, and that dynamic is beginning to happen in the south and west.”

Atlanta Beltline, Inc. initially set out to build the 22-mile transit loop with intentions of peppering some 5,600 affordable housing units along the path. Thus far, around 600 units have been created. Affordability advocates say Atlanta needs to step up its efforts to increase that number and prevent and curb displacement in Beltline neighborhoods.

Dan Immergluck, a Georgia Tech planning professor, says that the vast majority of apartments built in Atlanta from 2012 to 2014 were luxury units developed in Buckhead, Midtown, and other affluent neighborhoods, including those alongside the Beltline’s Eastside Trail. Those developments open with rent prices higher than what the area has historically seen, while affordable units seem to disappear. 

Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens has introduced a trio of proposals to help spark the construction and preservation of affordable units along the trail. Although the Council, developers, and community advocacy groups must still provide input, the pieces of legislation aim to mandate that a percentage of new Beltline area developments be set aside for affordable workforce housing for people who make below the area median income, or AMI.

“Any development in the Beltline overlay that’s going to have five or more units in it is going to have to either include 10 percent of the units at 60 percent AMI or 15 percent of them at 80 percent AMI for 30 years,” Dickens tells CL of the plans he introduced to the council on Oct. 17. (In May, the city estimated AMI at around $38,000 a year per person, according to Saporta Report.)

Developers who don’t want to build affordable units in their complexes would, under the proposed legislation, pay into a trust fund to pay for affordable housing elsewhere near the Beltline. For each affordable unit they don’t build, developers would have to pay a $150,000 “in-lieu fee” into a trust fund.

The trust fund would help buy land for future affordable developments, renovate now-affordable housing, and work to ensure people aren’t pushed out of their homes for minor code violations, like trees they can’t afford to remove, or needed repairs.

Dickens, who says his newest proposals likely won’t become law until mid 2017, says he also wants to see citywide mandatory inclusionary zoning. He says the in-lieu fees are “pretty flexible” and could also be used to buy units in existing developments along the Eastside Trail, which has become lined with luxury housing developments since it opened in 2014. The specifics are still up in the air, but Dickens says it could involve trading housing units for tax incentives, cash, or HUD vouchers.

The city recently sought out $50 million in bonds to fuel Beltline progress, $7.5 million of which would be used to fund affordable housing efforts along the path. That money should be available in January, Dickens says. The city also kicked off a project with developer Brock Built to build more than 60 affordable rental homes — and renovate others — in Mechanicsville.

But it’s going to take more funding. ABI Communications Director Ericka Davis in September told CL Beltline officials estimate it will require $6 million each year to meet the goal of 5,600 units. Forty percent of the funding must come from external sources.

“We project that in order to achieve our goal of 5,600 affordable units that it will require a collective investment in excess of $150 million,” Davis said. “Achieving this level of investment will require new and increased funding sources from the Atlanta community and beyond. ABI is confident that investing in these initiatives in a coordinated and comprehensive manner will help create an economically stronger and more inclusive Atlanta Beltline community, city and region.”

Immergluck says he’s behind Dickens’ proposals, but he thinks such efforts are taking shape later than needed. He and other affordability advocates say they hope the policy will be followed by a citywide ordinance requiring all new developments to include affordable units, or what’s called inclusionary zoning. The city already requires developers who want to use tax incentives to make some of their units affordable, but many neighborhood leaders say that approach is not enough to convince those investors to offer cheaper housing.

And affordability advocates aren’t putting the burden solely on developers to fix the issue. The problem resides in the real estate system, says Tim Franzen, co-founder of advocacy group Housing Justice League. “At the end of the day, this is the system that’s set up for developers,” he says. “It’s set up really well, and they’re taking advantage of it, and it’s their job to extract as much wealth as they possibly can.”

Many advocates for affordable housing are backing Dickens’ plans, but almost all of them believe much more action will be needed. Hattie Dorsey, a long-time community activist who’s been fighting for housing equity since the 1996 Olympics stadium development, says the legislation is a step in the right direction. But the data the city is using to determine the median income is skewed, she says.

“My concern is that the legislation is for the 60 to 80 percent area median, and that’s not really the city’s median. The area median is about 10 percent higher than the city’s median,” she says, noting that the AMI used by the city includes incomes from Sandy Springs and Marietta.

Franzen says he’s glad people with salaries comparable to “a teacher, a cop, or a firefighter” get subsidies for affordable living, but he says the city needs to understand the plight of low-wage workers as well.

“I’m not against subsidies for people making $42,000 to $45,000 a year,” he says. “But if we’re going to say we’re taking care of this problem by subsidizing people at the very highest on the spectrum of struggle, then we’re going to continue to plummet deeper into this affordable housing crisis.”

And Franzen says citizens in pricier cities than Atlanta have an easier time finding affordable housing than residents here because of the city’s renters rights — or the apparent lack thereof. He says cities such as New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco have “dynamic inclusionary housing, rent control, just-cause eviction laws, and renters rights 40 years ahead of us.”  

“That’s because they realize that, not only do developers have a moral obligation, city officials also have an economic obligation to make sure that there’s housing available for the whole spectrum of the workforce,” Franzen says.

In the meantime, the city needs to assess other ways to increase affordable living options, Immergluck says. “There need to be tools to control rises in property taxes for existing lower-income homeowners and programs to help existing renters – financing tools for apartment buildings which commit to not raise rents beyond a modest level,” he says.

“If we continue to have this unbridled development and wealth extraction, we’ll eventually have like a shanty town 20 miles south of the city, unless we’re able to do something bold and dynamic,” says Franzen. “What we’re seeing at city council is not bold and dynamic.”

Dorsey agrees: “The whole concept is not thought about deep enough to affect, as my father used to say, ‘the least of us.’ And the least of us are law-abiding, hardworking families that are caught up by the system of a changing environment.”

A work session about Dickens’ legislation is scheduled for Nov. 2 at City Hall.