The top contenders in Atlanta’s mayoral race knocked the city’s housing authority during a candidate forum Wednesday, lamenting that Atlanta Housing (AH) isn’t doing enough to shelter the city’s most marginalized people. AH leaders, however, say the candidates don’t know what they’re talking about.
Could both sides be right?
On Wednesday, the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum assembled the mayoral hopefuls to discuss how they’d address the city’s mounting housing crisis. All of them made a promise to boost productivity at AH, which some believe is still underperforming after years of leadership turbulence and lawsuits.
Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens complained of the many AH properties that have been languishing for more than a decade. “When I’m mayor, the Atlanta Housing Authority” — AH’s former name — “will actually start building housing units, and they will start [housing] the homeless population first,” he said.
Attorney Sharon Gay, touting her experience supporting affordable housing projects, said AH should better support renters earning 20 or 30 percent of the area median income (AMI). “That is the Atlanta Housing Authority’s job,” she said. “That is what they are uniquely equipped and chartered and designed to do. We absolutely must get AHA back into the business of building housing, building deeply affordable and mixed-income housing.”
“The nonprofit sector has been doing a little bit of that,” Gay added about affordable housing creation, “but the big gorilla in the room is the Atlanta Housing Authority, and they must get back in that business.”
During AH’s September board of commissioners meeting, though, board chairman Christopher Edwards said only people who aren’t paying attention think the housing authority is slacking.
“You guys have been doing a bang-up job ever since we got stable leadership here at the housing authority,” he told the board, nodding to CEO Eugene Jones, who joined AH in 2019, and Terri Lee, who came aboard as chief operating officer last year.
At the meeting, the AH board moved forward with financing for a handful of housing development and preservation projects. Additionally, AH last year kicked off construction of the new Herndon Square apartments. The phased development isn’t done, but some residents have moved in already, and hundreds more units are on the way at projects around the city, AH officials told Atlanta Civic Circle on Thursday.
Plus, AH is finally teeing up the resurrection of the long-dormant Atlanta Civic Center. The agency deployed a request for qualifications for the site in late August, outlining a vision that could include thousands of new housing units, a hotel, greenspace, restaurants and retail offerings.
Jones, too, said there’s no reason to believe AH is asleep at the wheel. He told Atlanta Civic Circle on Thursday that it seems as if “none of the candidates have been to a board meeting” or visited AH’s website or social media pages to read up on the agency’s efforts.
AH does have a lot of land to work with — almost 400 parcels totaling hundreds of acres across the city — that has sat unused for years.
“I don’t think there is anything that is more efficient than building new housing aggressively,” former Mayor Kasim Reed said Wednesday. He took office in 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession. “After the mortgage foreclosure crisis, we had to recover from that. Now we are experiencing prosperity that came after a great deal of work to turn around an economy that was in the worst shape.”
City Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Antonio Brown, also mayoral candidates, echoed the need for a sense of urgency.
“Right now, we don’t have enough housing developed to even matriculate [unhoused] individuals into any kind of sustainable care,” Brown said. “And if you can’t move them into sustainable care, how are they ever going to reacclimate into society?”
Moore said utilizing the city-owned properties that AH controls would be a step in the right direction.
Reed also advocated for a “scattershot approach” to wealth-building for people living in subsidized housing, calling for robust rent-to-own programs for AH residents.
But Jones said AH already has a down payment assistance program, and, he claims, one of the best rent-to-own programs in the country.
AH has some catching up to do after years of turmoil, but Jones believes the people seeking to lead the City of Atlanta “seem oblivious to all things Atlanta Housing.”
Watch the full mayoral candidate forum below: