Spurred by concerns that high-priced development along the Atlanta BeltLine is driving up property taxes for longtime residents, the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership unveiled an ambitious grant program last December to protect residents from displacement — but so far, it’s attracted few takers.
The BeltLine Partnership, a nonprofit affiliated with the Atlanta BeltLine, estimates that about 2,500 homeowners are eligible for the annual grants to cover spikes in their property taxes through its new Legacy Resident Retention Program, but only 58 homeowners have been approved so far. Another 125 eligible residents have applications in the works and 207 people have submitted pre-registrations for vetting.
The BeltLine Partnership’s executive director, Rob Brawner, said money isn’t the issue. The nonprofit has already raised over a quarter of the program’s projected cost to fund property tax relief through 2030 for eligible homeowners, but the problem is that not enough people have heard about it.
“Funding is not what is keeping us from serving more people right now,” he said. “It’s really getting the word out and having people apply.”
The BeltLine Partnership has raised over $3.5 million of the $12.5 million needed to fund the program through 2030, Brawner added.
The Legacy Resident Retention Program is open to residents in designated areas who have incomes below the area median income (AMI), which is $55,800 per year for a single-person household, and who also bought their homes before March 2017.
It serves the following neighborhoods: Simpson/Hollowell, Upper Marietta/Westside Park, RDA/Cascade and the Heritage Communities of South Atlanta.
Jen Treman, the BeltLine Partnership’s associate director of programs, said homeowners in these BeltLine-adjacent communities are the ones at the highest risk for displacement, based on research by APD Urban.
Outreach has been a weak point, particularly because the program launched during the pandemic, Treman added.
The nonprofit’s team has tried to get the word out about the property tax grants through social media, emails, flyers and yard signs, she said, but some legacy residents don’t use computers very often. As face-to-face contact becomes safer, the team plans to start going door-to-door to reach them.
“Word of mouth is really huge,” Treman said. “We’re hoping as we add more people into the program, they’ll tell their neighbors. I’ve been seeing a large uptick of that as the year has gone on. We’re hoping to expand that next year and hire local residents to help us spread the word in the different communities in a more door-to-door approach.”
One grant beneficiary, Tanisha Corporal, said the program covered the hefty property tax increase she faced — which jumped from $43 in 2018 to $613 this year — after her house’s assessed value tripled from $20,200 in 2018 to $60,000, according to Fulton County Board of Assessors data. (Her house’s actual value shot up even higher–from $50,500 to $150,000 over that period.)
Corporal, who has lived in Historic South Atlanta for 12 years, is a single mom putting her child through college, with an income of around 80% AMI, so the grant to cover her property tax bill was a big help, she said. She learned about the grant program when she reached out to Treman about another property tax-related program.
The application process was “a breeze,” Corporal said, although it took several months for her application to be approved and then receive her reimbursement check.
“I’ve benefited from [both] the development and the initiatives that they have,” she added. “I just want to say kudos to the organization for seeing that need.”
Corporal and another grant recipient, Alicia Jones, have experienced both the upside of having their home values increase while also seeing a hike in property taxes in their rapidly developing BeltLine neighborhoods.
Jones said she bought her house in Pittsburgh, near the state capitol, in 2007 because she was “intrigued” by the development potential, but she also spent “many years with my property values being underwater.”
But in recent years the property value has shot up, and so have her taxes. Her home’s assessed value ratcheted up from $19,960 in 2018 to $83,200 this year, according to Fulton Board of Assessors data, pushing up her property tax from $42 in 2018 to $489.
Jones lost her job during the pandemic, so when she learned about the Legacy Resident Retention Program from the BeltLine’s newsletter, she was quick to apply. Even when she was working, Jones added, her salary didn’t reach the program’s $55,800 AMI income limit for a single householder.
“It’s very generous in terms of what the scale is, and it allows individuals who are employed to still qualify for this program,” Jones said.
“Definitely, the BeltLine has had a positive impact on increasing [home] values,” she said. On the other hand, she added, “this type of program is imperative to assist those residents who have lived in these neighborhoods all their lives from being displaced, simply because they can no longer afford the taxes.”
Housing experts break it down
Local housing experts Odetta MacLeish-White, a HouseATL board member, and Frank Fernandez, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, applauded the BeltLine Partnership’s grant program, but both agreed that getting the funds to those who need them is what matters.
For this initiative to aid all 2,500 eligible residents, MacLeish-White said, the organizers need to get “really serious about information campaigns and making people aware that it’s available, but also not putting the burden of accessing it on them.”
“There’s an irony for infrastructure investments,” Fernandez added.
“Folks who live in disinvested communities [have] been advocating for investments in infrastructure,” he explained. “What we’ve seen with the BeltLine and other infrastructures, is that the very things that people are asking for, like investments in a park, like the BeltLine, or safer streets, bike lanes, lighting — all these things are the very things that end up pushing them out.”
The anti-displacement program is available to households with income that’s anywhere below 100% AMI, but MacLeish-White emphasized that residents with income under 50% AMI are the ones who really need access, not just those more broadly considered low-income.
“HouseATL, in its research phase, found that the 50% AMI paying-point is the one with the least amount of help,” she explained, cautioning that the program needs to make sure “that people comfortably making 80% of AMI are not sucking up all the resources, leaving those who are the most challenged too little to be helped.”
“I would hope that the program is trying to keep track of and make sure that they’re not losing that set of legacy residents,” MacLeish-White added.
The BeltLine Partnership is not currently tracking participants’ income as a percentage of AMI, but the nonprofit’s director of marketing and communications noted that the homeowners’ average yearly income is $37,114 — roughly $18,000 below the 100% AMI threshold for a single-person household.
The Legacy Resident Retention Program isn’t a permanent solution for preventing displacement, Brawner said, but he believes that having it continue through 2030 will allow enough time for needed changes in legislation.
What’s needed longer-term, he said, “is a policy solution where the taxing entities say that it’s important to us to keep these residents in their community and help to moderate the increases in property tax so that it is affordable to those who are in these neighborhoods.”
“Fortunately, I know that affordable housing is something that is really important to [incoming] Mayor Dickens,” Brawner added. “So, if we’re really serious about changing tax policy, and we really care about the people living in these communities, and we’re really committed to ensuring that they can stay, 10 years should absolutely be enough time to get those policy measures through.”
If you’re one of the 2,500 residents who could use some help staying in your home, click here to learn more about the Atlanta BeltLine’s Legacy Resident Retention Program.