Atlanta Mayor-elect Andre Dickens has vowed to make housing affordability a top priority when he takes office in January. So did Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms when she campaigned in 2017. Could the self-proclaimed champion of affordable housing make a bigger dent in the city’s mounting housing crisis than his predecessor?
Like Bottoms, Dickens has promised that the city will produce and preserve some 20,000 affordable residences over the next eight years—two mayoral terms, if things go his way. Over his two terms as a City Councilmember, Dickens architected city policies mandating affordable housing inclusion at new developments in fast-gentrifying communities, earning him a reputation as a powerful advocate for affordability.
As mayor, Bottoms has helped direct nearly $600 million toward housing affordability initiatives, after campaigning on a commitment to invest $1 billion toward building and renovating those thousands of units. Those funds—mostly tax-exempt bonds and city housing authority money—spurred the creation and restoration of roughly 7,000 units. About half are still in the development pipeline.
But the constant refrain from critics of Bottoms’ $1 billion mission has been that there’s a glaring lack of new municipal funding propelling that construction. This could be where Dickens’ plan is different.
During a mayoral candidate forum in July, Dickens said he’d increase the city’s budget by, potentially, tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing. His transition team said Thursday that he wouldn’t be available for an interview on how he’ll enact that plan until early next week.
Like many of his mayoral race rivals, Dickens also pledged to expedite development at the hundreds of acres of city land that have been sitting vacant for years.
Most of that property is owned by Atlanta Housing (AH), the city’s public housing authority. However, AH CEO Eugene Jones has cautioned that turning all that dirt into residences is easier said than done—and, in many cases, already underway.
Jones said during a panel discussion last month, hosted by Atlanta Civic Circle and WABE, that the next generation of city leadership—including Dickens and the new Atlanta City Council—must craft a masterplan that spells out specific housing affordability goals, including where units are needed, who’s responsible for building or preserving them, and a timeline to keep the plan on track.
While Dickens couldn’t be reached for comment, the housing policies outlined on his campaign website calls for a $250 million affordable housing bond— which would more than double the size of the existing bond program—and for adding $20 million annually to Atlanta’s housing funding, with $10 million from the general fund and another $10 million in new funding from unspecified “renewable sources.”
To tackle all that, Dickens intends to hire a new chief housing officer for Atlanta. The post is currently vacant after the city’s former top housing official, Terri Lee, left City Hall to become AH’s chief operating officer last year.
Under the Dickens administration, the city could bolster its inclusionary zoning policies, which he championed in 2017 as a city councilmember, which require residential developers to earmark units for affordable housing at new projects near the Atlanta Beltline and in certain Westside communities.
Early this year, when the Atlanta City Council created a new inclusionary zone near the Westside Quarry Park, Dickens told Atlanta Civic Circle that, in an ideal world, Atlanta would have citywide inclusionary zoning. “That becomes more possible when the state legislature becomes more progressive,” he added.
Dickens doesn’t yet have the fraught relationship with Georgia’s majority-Republican legislature that Bottoms has had to navigate, so coming into the mayor’s office with a relatively clean slate could set him up for productive housing conversations.
But the GOP-controlled legislature hasn’t shown much concern for affordable housing, so Dickens’ housing ambitions will likely play out at the municipal level.
As mayor, Dickens will also be grappling with Atlanta’s daunting income inequality and low economic mobility—both major hurdles in the pursuit of housing affordability and stability—so fulfilling his housing goals will demand a herculean effort. Activists, constituents, and journalists are sure to keep his feet to the fire from day one.