Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown launched his bid for mayor with a pledge to “reimagine Atlanta.” That kind of ambition, of course, demands a tough look at myriad issues — crime, income inequality and education, among others — that can be addressed by first ensuring Atlantans have housing stability.
“The crime we see is a side effect of generational poverty going on for decades in this city,” Brown told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview. He wants to help marginalized citizens create generational wealth by way of housing innovation. “We, as a city, cannot call ourselves the Black Mecca of the South if we’ve left behind a constituency which we force into poverty because we have not created opportunities for them to coexist in thriving communities.”
Give the excerpt below a read to get a feel for Brown’s mayoral goals, and listen to the full interview in the embedded link. And, of course, check back soon to see interviews with more mayoral hopefuls.
Sean Keenan: Like in any major city, the next mayor of Atlanta is going to have a thousand issues to deal with. We’ve got some of our own unique ones, though, like what the Mayor Bottoms has called the “COVID crime wave,” as well as police-citizen relations, pandemic recovery, income inequality, education, everything. But a lot of the urban planning experts I’ve been talking to say that we can address those issues by taking a housing-first approach. So do you think working for housing affordability is a gateway to fixing some of the city’s other pressing problems?
Antonio Brown: Absolutely. Let me tell you what I believe is two of the most key factors that can address this. This is the thing, Sean: this crime wave — I mean, crime has been happening in Atlanta. It may not have been happening at the kind of the consistency that we’ve seen it within Atlanta because of everything that has just transpired with coming out of the pandemic. But the reality is this. The crime we see is a side effect of generational poverty going on addressed for decades in the city. And I’ve been saying this, and I will continue to say this: if we can work to create more affordable housing, provide access to resources for those that are unsheltered and provide folks with a job, I think that you do do more than just address crime. You’re actually solving an issue with a societal ecosystem that has left behind some of the most vulnerable residents in the city. And it’s not just Black poor people. It’s a working middle class; it’s our small businesses, because — think about this — by creating a thriving ecosystem where everyone has the ability, the access to sustain and thrive within this ecosystem, what you’re doing is you’re able to put folks back to work, give them some sense of sustainability, by providing housing, access to housing. And, in hand, what are people then doing when they’re thriving? They’re spending money, and they’re building businesses, and they’re putting people to work, and they’re increasing the city’s tax digest. These things, I think, are critical to the fundamental nature of who we are as a people in this city and across this country.
Let’s say that we build a city in which compact, affordable housing is more easy to develop. The terms “public housing” and “affordable housing” are still incredibly stigmatized — for some reasons that carry water and some that are unsubstantiated. There’s this belief that affordable housing attracts crime, or that this kind of development will drag down property values. So what can Atlanta do to shed that stigma — the one that makes maybe suburban types or NIMBYs cringe when they hear it?
Listen, you got to you got to lead through action, right? There’s of course a reeducation that has to happen for folks to understand the true definition of affordable housing. You can have mixed-income affordable housing that is a variation of median incomes in the City of Atlanta, and you can have folks from all walks of life thriving together. To me, that is a sustainable ecosystem. What is not a sustainable ecosystem is when you congregate poverty, and you build public housing that’s only for low income residents. Then, you have residents that have nothing to strive for. All they see is the poverty around them, which is why, originally, the public housing was dismantled in the first place. So I think you do need to reeducate residents on what true affordable housing looks like. And, in the process of that, lead to action, and showing them examples of what it looks like so that they can believe in something other than a misnomer about what affordable housing really is.
You’re probably pretty well versed in this homeownership gap that we have in Atlanta — this vast divide between the white residents and people of color. So, to take it a little more broadly, race is obviously going to play a big part in this election. How much of the housing conversation is based on race? And do you think there’s an appetite for affirmative action or reparations-type housing policies in Atlanta?
Yes, I do, actually. I believe that there is definitely room [for affirmative action or reparations]. I know several council members have participated, along with myself, on calls around how do we have a Black restoration plan put in place to do a lot of what we’ve discussed, like building generational wealth, like creating opportunities for folks to start small businesses. I believe that it’s very possible in the City of Atlanta, and I believe it’s not just possible in the City of Atlanta; I believe this is a conversation being had across the country, because people see it as more realistic now than ever before. So to answer the original question about race, look, at the end of the day, you have a city that is truly divided for a lot of reasons — a city in which, until Maynard Jackson, Black people really didn’t have the opportunities that white people have in the city. And that that’s just the truth. So there’s always been this divide you’ve had from 1970 to 1980. You know, mass incarceration; you also have the new Black elite, the people that benefited from the very policies that Maynard Jackson enforced that created opportunities for them to exist amongst their counterparts, their white counterparts that have been thriving in Atlanta. And I think that that’s just continued, and the unfortunate part about this is we shouldn’t be divided. I’ve had conversations with people in Buckhead — with both white and Black people in Buckhead. I’ve had conversations with white and Black people on the Westside of Atlanta. We have more in common then we do different. We work a lot of the same things. Buckhead represents 37 percent of the city’s tax base. And what they’ve asked for is their communities to be safe, their businesses to prosper,their roads to be fixed. Those are the same things that we want on the Westside of Atlanta. There is no difference. But I believe that you have a small group of individuals in the city that have worked to preserve power — both Black and white — that have perpetuated this facade, out of protection of that preservation of power. And the side effect of that is is that you have both Black and white people in this city left behind.
This is the third installment of a Q+A series with Atlanta’s mayoral hopefuls to discuss their plans for our city’s future. Check out our first installment with Sharon Gay, our second installment with Andre Dickens, and stay tuned for more discussions.