Atlanta Housing (AH) has nearly freed itself from a years-long legal entanglement with Integral Group and its development partners. The housing authority’s board of commissioners on Wednesday approved a settlement deal that spells out how 88 acres of valuable, publicly owned land can be developed.
The move, which still must be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), could finally end the protracted feud between AH and Integral’s development team for projects that would have included affordable housing.
The 88 acres of AH land in dispute border four separate mixed-income residential properties Integral previously bought from AH years ago.
Under the settlement agreement reached Feb. 16, AH would sell 54 acres to Integral for $26 million and retain control of roughly 19 acres across the four sites and in surrounding neighborhoods. Integral will relinquish any economic interests and development rights for that land.
The deal would nullify a previous plan for the two parties to co-develop all of the land through a public-private partnership.
Instead, for the remaining 14 acres, AH and Integral would team up to transform seven acres into public parkland at the Capitol Homes public housing site and co-develop the remaining seven acres in a project that’s expected to include affordable housing.
The settlement would free up AH from years of costly and time-consuming litigation, positioning it to focus its resources on affordable housing.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens unexpectedly helped orchestrate the pending resolution of this lengthy legal saga, when the new mayor convened AH and Integral leaders in early February and urged them to quash the beef.
The dispute started in 2017, during then-Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration, after Integral tried to exercise a purchase option for the land in question, and AH sued to void the contract, saying the price was too low and the deal didn’t include sufficient affordable housing provisions.
The agreement Dickens helped broker would circumvent what was expected to be a bitter trial, set for March 22. AH had been beefing up its legal team in preparation.
AH has long sought to “get out of the lawsuit business,” because the litigation has distracted the agency from developing affordable housing — as AH board chair Christopher Edwards put it in February 2020 and repeatedly thereafter.
On Feb. 3, AH’s board bumped a decision on a master developer for the long-delayed Bowen Homes redevelopment off its scheduled agenda to instead deliberate on the settlement proposal with Integral.
The following week, the housing authority told Atlanta Civic Circle it would not apply for a $50 million HUD grant to spur the redevelopment of the former Westside housing project and the revitalization of surrounding communities.
AH chief executive Eugene Jones told Atlanta Civic Circle at the time that the delay on choosing a master developer for the 74-acre Bowen project “has nothing to do with the lawsuit.” AH can still apply for the grant next year, he added.
While the AH board has voted to approve the settlement agreement with Integral, Edwards, the board chair, emphasized that it’s not yet a done deal. “This is ultimately HUD’s land, HUD’s money, and HUD’s decision,” he said.
AH board member Robert Highsmith, who’s a lawyer at corporate firm Holland & Knight, said after the vote that he hadn’t anticipated Atlanta’s new mayor would broker a deal to reconcile this long-running legal fight.
“I want to thank our new mayor,” Highsmith said. “I might have lost that bet, Mr. Chairman, if you had told me that six weeks into the new administration, we would have … a final executable document here, that I think is gonna get us there.”
Integral CEO Egbert Perry similarly praised Dickens for mediating, saying in a statement that, “because of his urging and guidance, a resolution to a longstanding dispute appears to have been found.”
Lile Edwards, Perry struck a cautiously optimistic tone.
“Any obfuscation in the submission, or other engagement with HUD designed to violate the spirit of the settlement agreement, will result in further delay in the production of much-needed housing and will guarantee a return to court,” he warned in his statement, referencing HUD’s refusal to fund a prior settlement two years ago, which let to more litigation.
“We are hopeful that we are opening a new chapter,” Perry concluded.
Dickens, in an exclusive statement to Atlanta Civic Circle, said this deal should get AH back on track to do its primary job: providing affordable housing.
“I’ve said that we will build and preserve 20,000 units of affordable housing, and today’s vote clears the path for AH to do just that,” he said. “The business of Atlanta Housing should be building affordable housing and placing families in them.”