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More than 15 years after the vision for the Atlanta Beltline began coming to life, the popular multi-use path project is still better known for spurring gentrification — and, in effect, displacement — than it is for making good on its founders’ housing affordability promises. But the 22-mile loop of trees, trails and, one day, transit is yet unfinished, and there’s still time to fulfill city officials’ promise of wrapping the whole development with some 5,600 units of affordable housing by 2030.
A new tax mechanism designed to fund the remainder of the Beltline’s construction, approved by the Atlanta City Council last week, however, has punctuated the project’s capacity to offer housing affordability with yet another question mark.
The program that councilmembers approved on March 15 creates a so-called “Special Services District” (SSD), in which commercial properties and apartment complexes will have to undergo a tax hike. The revenue from the local tax increase will finance the completion of the Beltline’s trail network.
Proponents of the SSD say it will be a godsend for the Beltline’s lofty housing affordability goals, freeing up $45 million from the Beltline Tax Allocation District (TAD) — an area around the planned loop where property tax increases help fund the project — so it could be used to produce affordable units.
Opponents and skeptics, though, worry that landlords impacted by the SSD will simply pass the tax increases on to their tenants, raising rents and, in effect, offsetting the benefits of unlocking those TAD funds.
Today, project officials say, more than 2,200 affordable units have been created in the Beltline TAD. That’s 40 percent of the ultimate goal, and nearly 1,000 more units are in the development pipeline. So can the SSD move the needle up to 5,600?
Dan Immergluck, an urban studies professor at Georgia State University, told Atlanta Civic Circle he’s not convinced of the SSD’s ability to provide housing that’s affordable to lower-income Atlantans.
“My biggest concern with the SSD,” he said, “is that the Beltline has a poor track record of creating affordable housing, and, while it is good to see a substantial goal for this in the [ordinance], I am concerned about how those dollars — if they materialize — will get spent and whether they will really help provide truly affordable housing for low-income Atlantans.”
Housing experts have repeatedly said that Atlanta is in dire need of residential options for households earning 50 percent or less than the area median income (AMI). Immergluck added that he hopes “some large portion” of the TAD money Beltline officials expect to free up for housing initiatives “would be targeted even more deeply, at less than 30 percent of the AMI, where many low-income Atlantans are at.”
City council members who drafted the SSD ordinance have not yet responded to questions about whether there will be safeguards to ensure the housing produced by the rerouted TAD funding will accommodate the city’s most vulnerable residents. “Without such measures,” Immergluck said, “the Beltline will continue to be a magnet for middle- and upper-income folks moving into the city.”
Sarah Kirsch, member of affordable housing advocacy group HouseATL, told Atlanta Civic Circle the organization is happy with some aspects of the SSD program, such as its creation of a $12.5 million community retention fund “to mitigate displacement by offsetting increases in property tax increases and provide more resources to help people stay in their homes,” as well as the home empowerment workshops that are expected to help renters and homeowners learn about eviction relief, homestead exemptions and property tax appeals.
Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel, who crafted the idea for the project in his 1999 Georgia Tech thesis project, said in a January Atlanta Journal-Constitution column that the SSD is vital to realizing his dream of creating a live-work-play corridor linking dozens of intown neighborhoods.
Gravel wrote that his determination to see the trail component of the Beltline completed does not come at the expense of his focus on transit, housing and other elements of the project. “In fact, I believe [finishing the path] will support them,” he said.
“The trail will also attract new investment, which will create more job opportunities, and construction will support many minority-owned contractors,” Gravel said. “New rental apartments will be required to deliver affordable units under inclusionary zoning, and all development will increase funding through the Beltline Tax Allocation District to support all project components, including affordable housing and small business incentives.”
A Beltline spokesperson echoed that sentiment in a statement sent to Atlanta Civic Circle. “It is anticipated that construction of the trail corridor, supported by the SSD, will lead to increased development of adjacent land, including many new multi-family residential developments that will contain affordable units in accordance with inclusionary zoning.”