Andre Dickens doesn’t want to be compared to Keisha Lance Bottoms, but the incoming mayor doesn’t have much choice. When Dickens takes over from Bottoms next month, he’ll be charged with navigating the pandemic, fighting crime, and pulling Atlanta out of an affordable housing crisis—a daunting checklist that his predecessor has been chipping away at for years.
While crime, policing, and battling COVID-19 stole the spotlight during election season, conversations on housing affordability all but fell by the wayside. Dickens says he aims to change that when he’s sworn in.
“I’m just going to do it,” Dickens said in an interview with Atlanta Civic Circle. “I don’t care about who did what, so I’m not going to rate [Bottoms’] performance. We’re going to be aggressive on housing. It won’t be a secondary issue—it’s going to be primary.”
Although Dickens has promised the city will produce and preserve 20,000 affordable units over his potentially two terms as mayor—a pledge Bottoms also made on the 2017 campaign trail—he’s not marrying that commitment to a dollar figure.
Bottoms’ commitment came with a plan to invest $1 billion toward building those affordable homes. To date, the city has routed almost $600 million to affordable housing, but that financing has only propelled the construction and restoration of about 7,000 units.
“I’m not going off of monetary amounts,” Dickens said. “I’m going off the number of units that we build.”
“Dollars are a moving target in an escalating economy,” he added. “The cost of housing continues to go up, so I’m just thinking about units and people.”
Dickens said he’s been talking with local housing leaders over the past few months—including officials at the city’s public housing authority—“about my priorities and how fast we need to move.”
Urgency is the name of the game, Dickens said, pointing to his goal of fast-tracking the development of languishing Atlanta Housing (AH) sites, especially the Atlanta Civic Center.
None of these goals can be realized, though, without financial support. One element of his funding plan materialized on Monday, when the Atlanta City Council approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund that, once fully effective, will utilize a full 2% of the city’s general fund annually—about $14 million. Dickens co-sponsored the legislation.
It’s unclear, however, where Dickens intends to find “renewable sources” to channel another $10 million a year toward housing initiatives. “Yeah, we’ve got to find them,” he said, noting that Atlanta’s new tax on short-term rental properties could be one source.
“I’ve got to work with the city council to determine where all the short-term rental money is going to go,” Dickens said. “I suppose they will be excited to hear I want to put some of it toward housing.”
Dickens also envisions a new $250 million housing opportunity bond. To service the bond debt, he said, “I think we have some TADs that may see their end of life.”
Dickens was referring to Tax Allocation Districts, which are designated areas where property tax revenue is used for local improvements. “Two of them will close in my term, the Atlantic Station TAD and the Princeton Lakes TAD,” he said, referencing districts where TAD benefits will soon expire.
“Eventually, there are some larger TADs that we’ll close up,” he said. “Those dollars can then be utilized to pay the debt service on this $250 million bond, which will benefit the whole city, not just those areas.”
Boosting intown housing affordability also requires changes to how the city can be developed—something the city planning department’s ongoing zoning code rewrite aims to accomplish.
Last week, the city council’s zoning committee effectively shot down the initial legislation that would update the zoning code, a proposal by Councilmember Amir Farokhi that would have allowed more dense and diverse housing development at historically single-family properties.
The timing wasn’t right for that legislation, Dickens said. “It came during an election with a whole bunch of people on the ballot that led to a whole bunch of runoffs in a time where we’re dealing with a lot of other stuff.”
Farokhi’s proposal also wasn’t well received by most of the city’s 25 neighborhood planning units, because some members saw allowing additional density as a threat to single-family communities.
“It didn’t travel the right way across the city,” Dickens said of the legislation. “And I’m not blaming [City Planning Commissioner] Tim Keane or Farokhi, but I also know that there was a significant amount of unreadiness that didn’t even have to do with the actual merit of the paper.”
Dickens, who lives in a single-family home, said he wouldn’t be irked if a neighbor decided to build an accessory dwelling unit, such as a tiny home in the backyard, but many residents didn’t fully understand the legislation’s potential benefits.
“I just think that [legislation] was ahead of schedule,” he said. “We didn’t have enough time to explain it, so that the public can get a true reaction to it.”
But some of Dickens’ affordable housing dreams can only come to fruition with support from other governments. For instance, housing experts have long called for reforming the way commercial properties are appraised and taxed by metro Atlanta counties, which could raise additional tax revenue for affordable housing.
Dickens said he’ll use his bully pulpit as mayor to encourage Fulton County to consider such changes.
“I see that as something we really have to dig into, because if commercial properties are undertaxed, that tax comes at the expense of all the city services like public safety, Parks and Rec, even our schools,” he said. “So yes, this is not the newest conversation on the block, but it’s one that’s going to be repeated. It’s going to happen.”
Dickens’ inauguration is set for Jan. 3. After that, the heat is on for him and his new city council to make good on their promises from the campaign trail.
- Read Atlanta Civic Circle’s interview with Andre Dickens on affordable housing here.