The oft-used term “public housing” leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and according to Atlanta Housing’s new CEO Eugene Jones, it needs to go away.
Speaking during an Atlanta Press Club event Tuesday about the need to shed the stigma associated with living in government-subsidized housing, Jones said the term is harmful and shouldn’t be used.
“We need to take that stereotype away about ‘public housing,’” he said. “That term has been used longer than I’ve been around.” Jones said he’d like to see the dated phrase eliminated, and he joked that he’s going to “trademark” new terminology.
However, it’s not just verbiage that needs to change, according to Jones. “We need to change that whole mentality about public housing,” he said.
Part of abandoning the stigma, Jones said, is focusing on affordable housing design so units are virtually “indistinguishable” from market-rate residences. Additionally, he added, Atlanta’s efforts shouldn’t be focused solely on developing affordable units, but also on striving to create communities that foster economic opportunities for their residents — think jobs training and other social services.
“For individuals, we can help ensure opportunity by providing them the opportunity to live in the communities of their choice indistinguishable from their neighbors, no matter how they pay their rent,” he said.
Making such dreams a reality, however, would be more feasible with better public funding mechanisms. When asked how the state could help move the needle on metro Atlanta’s housing affordability crisis, Jones said, “tax credits.”
Currently, developers can apply for Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) via the state’s Department of Community Affairs. They can score a 4-percent tax break or the coveted, very competitive 9-percent LIHTC.
“The ideal situation is to get 9-percent tax credits because that makes a deal funded quicker,” Jones said. “With 4-percent tax credits, there’s always a gap in financing. Who fills the gap? You can look at new market tax credits, historical tax credits, whatever is available.”
The big question, though, is, “How can we get better tax allocation from the state?” Jones said.
Another avenue Jones also suggested is financially pressuring developers to be compassionate about housing affordability.
“The dollar is not the same as it was two or three years ago, so you want those developers to be compelled to build affordable housing. You almost have to shame them,” he said. “It’s about money, ladies and gentlemen. It’s always going to be about money. How do you get a developer to be more compassionate about the need for affordable housing?”
Other hurdles Jones outlined that are keeping Atlanta from fulfilling the affordable housing goals laid out in Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s One Atlanta housing plan include zoning regulations and NIMBY-ism — a “not in my backyard” mindset. People who fret about what could happen to their property values if affordable units are introduced to a neighborhood, he said, are “just not forward thinkers.”
Jones added it’s important to reinforce the merits of fostering diversity of all kinds — racial, socioeconomic and otherwise — in Atlanta neighborhoods. Realizing all those goals, of course, is much easier said than done, and it’s clear the new CEO has his work cut out for him.