The ongoing pandemic has sped up changes already occurring in the metro-Atlanta housing market, accelerating gentrification and worsening the already critical shortages in affordable housing. But this era is different for our sprawling metro region because of a shift in the demographic profile of the suburbs–and the increasingly regional effects of gentrification.
That means both Atlanta and the surrounding metro-area counties and cities must work together to keep gentrification from further pricing people out of the entire region.
Atlanta’s gentrification started in the 1970s with the business-led creation of ‘Midtown’ and the adjacent in-town neighborhoods of Inman Park and Virginia Highlands.
Fast forward 50 years, and Atlanta’s affordable housing issues are now the region’s–after one Olympics, two airport expansions, five separate eras of gentrification, a 15-year campaign to end public housing, and a dearth of high-density new housing stock.
While gentrification has been an Atlanta issue for years, it’s now affecting the sprawling greater-metro region. Fifty years of suburban expansion, initially sparked by white flight, has pushed Atlanta’s borders to, basically, Alabama and Athens.
What’s missing from this expansion is sufficient new affordable housing construction, both in rental and for-purchase properties, alongside a need for higher density housing and land use.
The more recent eras of widening-out sprawl have been driven by steady spikes in Atlanta housing prices, coupled with the growing lack of housing options in the new suburbs, exurbs, and outer-exurban areas. This is due in part to the glut of single family homes both ITP and OTP.
Rapid growth has swept up areas of adjoining counties, causing spiraling price increases, which threaten the metro area’s overall affordability. The northern suburbs of Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton, and Fayette counties are registering the sharpest residential growth, according to the 2020 Census.
Consequently, home prices are rising as fast in these fast-growing areas as they are in Atlanta. That causes a ripple effect, as would-be home buyers head further out, causing new concerns about gentrification, even in middle-class to upper-middle-class suburban areas. Gentrification doesn’t stop simply because an area is now in a weather class, it can eventually be gentrified as well.
Metro Atlanta’s suburban home market is starting to show early signs of gentrification as would-be home owners are being priced out of desirable housing markets.
The city of Atlanta and the greater metro area are united in a common need to preserve affordable housing amid the hyper-regional gentrification, so that it doesn’t end up like the unaffordable sprawl around the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia or San Francisco Bay areas. But unlike these cautionary examples, Atlanta still has some options.
Here are some big-picture regional & metro-Atlanta solutions:
1) Property tax freezes/gradual tax increases
Using property tax freezes or gradual tax increases for some homeowners in gentrifying areas should be a bigger strategy of the five core metro-Atlanta counties of Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton. The millage rates on homes across the metro area are increasing year over year. Some areas are thriving, but foreclosures and vacant properties are increasing in others.
2) Targeted rent control
Rent control should be implemented on a case-by-case basis with support from local municipalities. Rent control is not a solution to all aspects of displacement or unattainable housing, but it’s much better than solely market-based solutions, which are how we ended up with rampant displacement, and unequal housing types to begin with. Rent control can work, despite the evangelism of freemarket housing enthusiasts.
Currently, Georgia does not allow for any form of rent control which is “anti-competitive.” Rent control in a public-private model, where the public retains the land is the most ideal way to make this work.
Rent control should be put in place first on city owned property or in affordable housing projects for the most vulnerable – the eldery, disabled, homeless students and working homeless residents. As soon as some available housing stock, now in the process of being developed on former Atlanta Housing (AH) public housing sites, becomes available, the program can be expanded.
3) Affordable housing needs a PR agent
Simply building more housing has not appreciably expanded our regional affordable housing stock. The costs for newly built single-family homes, apartments, and home rentals were already trending up before the pandemic started, and it has pushed them higher.
Producing much-needed affordable housing on a regional level is a big hurdle. To do so, we must address the public’s misconceptions about what affordable housing is–and, more importantly, what it isn’t. Affordable housing is not public housing, nor is it the perception that has accompanied it for decades. Affordable housing has a variety of service models, designs, and residents.
4) Base AMI on personal income
Area median income (AMI) is the metric generally used to set affordable housing rates in mixed-income developments, but AMI’s complexities favors developers, not people. It often results in rental prices that are still unaffordable. For developments that want to include affordable housing, often for tax breaks, the common practice of setting income thresholds as a percentage of AMI should be retooled to focus on those with far lower incomes than the commonly used 80% of AMI.
5) Mixed-income housing needs an update
Relatedly, the current model of mixed-income housing relies too heavily on private development, its costs can vary wildly, and relies too much on using a percentage of AMI to define what’s affordable housing. Generally, multifamily developments designate 10% to 15% of units affordable, and set the rates based on a percentage of AMI.
Instead, we need an actual income-based model. Affordable units should be designated for people who need housing the most, instead of using the median income for a fast-gentrifying area.
6) Suburbs (and exurbs) need apartments–and lots of them
Atlanta’s suburbs and exurbs are sprawling ever further away from the city core. Large lots for individual houses are abetting the sprawl, so we need higher density development across the region, including apartments and townhouses.
7) Increase regional density
We should be deploying higher density development across metro Atlanta, especially around interstates and commercial districts, to address the shortage of housing stock. Building dense districts with low or no parking along commercial corridors and around downtowns and main streets should be part of all regional planning.
8) Atlanta Housing should increase density
Most of Atlanta Housing’s affordable housing that’s in the works uses current, lower-density models (the 5-over-1) to produce multifamily units of only six stories or less. For Atlanta to provide greater housing stability for the city and, by proxy, the region, the city’s public housing developer should start planning residential buildings that are 15 stories or more. Singapore has successfully done this for both high-rise public housing and public-private housing. The land is already there.
9) We need public housing projects
We need a new generation of public housing projects. Mixed-income, public–private development alone can’t address the Atlanta region’s housing needs for low-income workers, elderly people, those with disabilities and those on the edge of becoming homeless—which is what former public housing projects did. Especially with a jobs market where there’s greater instability and workers are likely to be employed short-term, while lacking job protections, we need social housing for the most marginalized workers.
10) Community land trusts
Community land trusts are potentially a great option for keeping lower-income residents in place. Allocating land that’s currently owned by local municipalities to land trusts can provide new territory for building long-term affordable housing.
11) Regional multimodal mass transit–and transit-oriented developments
All of these ideas are moot without mass, multimodal mass transit that serves the entire region, surrounded by transit-oriented developments that provide people easy access to jobs and schools.
12) Implement the plans already out there!
If there’s one thing Atlanta loves, it’s developing a plan. However, most of our housing plans never see the light of day, or the promised design and investments don’t materialize. We have plenty of affordable housing plans from the metro counties and cities, local community improvement districts and the Atlanta Regional Commission. Let’s combine the most tenable parts into one regional plan.