The plight of six Section 8 renters at risk of being booted from a high-end Beltline apartment complex serves as a case study on the obstacles confronting lower-income Atlantans seeking housing stability, two housing experts and a city council member told Atlanta Civic Circle on Friday.
Their situation highlights just how landlord-friendly Georgia’s laws are, and the barriers they present for progressive lawmakers to enact much-needed protections for people paying rent with the government’s help.
Carter-Haston, the Nashville-based owner of EDGE on the Beltline, is on the verge of ending its participation in Atlanta Housing’s (AH) Housing Choice Voucher Program and evicting the six residents who rely on those subsidies to live at the Old Fourth Ward apartment complex. The landlord has given them until Aug. 31 to find a new place to live.
The local housing authority is trying to persuade the real estate investor to keep its Section 8 units at the complex, but AH lacks the legal and political leverage to force Carter-Haston to comply.
“This saga is probably reflective of similar situations across the city,” Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who represents the district where EDGE is located, said in an interview. “It just shows how easy it is for folks who are Section 8 [voucher holders] or on the margins to fall through the cracks.”
In an ideal world, Farokhi said, Atlanta would have an enforceable law that requires all landlords to accept rent payments via vouchers. But Georgia housing law bars the city from enacting legislation to do that.
A law prohibiting landlords from discriminating against renters using public subsidies would provide a lot more housing for lower-income Atlantans, agreed AH’s CEO, Eugene Jones, and Georgia State University sociology professor Deirdre Oakley. She has studied the difficulties low-income Atlanta renters face using Section 8 vouchers to find new homes after the city demolished the public housing projects where they lived in the 1990s and 2000s.
“We need to go to the state [legislature] and say, ‘Landlords do not have the right to not accept Section 8 vouchers,'” Jones said.
But that’s a pipe dream without a major political pivot toward making housing accessible by the state or even the federal government, the housing experts said.
“Our capitalist, for-profit model doesn’t serve low-income residents, especially low-income residents of color,” Oakley said. Especially in Atlanta, “landlords, developers, property owners who can get high market rates for their apartments have no motivation to rent to voucher tenants,” she said, even though they collect market-rate rents from Section 8 tenants, thanks to the AH subsidies.
To increase the affordable housing stock, Atlanta has enacted inclusionary zoning laws for several fast-gentrifying areas with skyrocketing rents. In exchange for density allowances and reduced parking requirements, developers are required to earmark some new residential units in hot markets—including around the Beltline—for what the city considers affordable housing.
But those units are rarely affordable for people who need housing most, Oakley said, referring to families who earn 50% or less of the area median income (AMI). In greater metro Atlanta, that comes to under $43,000 for a four-person household.
Even with rents discounted by the inclusionary zoning program, these apartments are hardly affordable for folks on Section 8 support. The EDGE on the Beltline, for instance, has 36 units set aside as affordable housing in exchange for tax breaks, but the rent is pegged to an income that’s 80% of metro Atlanta’s AMI.
The dearth of apartment owners willing to accept vouchers has placed AH’s Jones in the Sisyphean role of whittling away at a waitlist for voucher assistance that stretches more than 24,000 people long—while those who actually receive that help scramble to find complexes willing to rent to them.
“We MUST change the ‘public housing’ [stigma] and push for national policy reform,” Jones tweeted Friday. In the face of Georgia law barring municipalities from requiring landlords to accept Section 8 tenants, he urged Atlanta to adopt a law like one just passed by Charlotte’s city council that bars properties benefiting from public incentives from refusing to rent to voucher recipients.
Even though a city law like that would be a baby step, he added, it would still take a good bit of political will to make it effective.
Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature has historically lacked an appetite for progressive housing legislation, Oakley said, and the issues EDGE residents face aren’t unique—or new.
In 2010, Oakley and other GSU scholars studied the relocation patterns of tenants from Atlanta public housing complexes demolished in the 1990s and 2000s.
“There were some tenants who in the course of a year had moved like six, seven, eight times,” she said. “It was a combination of the landlords, like this Beltline landlord, deciding they didn’t want to do [Section 8] anymore—or just really bad living conditions.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams last month unveiled her housing platform, calling for enhanced renter protections statewide. GSU urban studies professor Dan Immergluck called Abrams’ ideas “solid” but “ambitious” in a state where landlords have far more power than tenants.
Gov. Brain Kemp, the Republican incumbent, has not yet announced his policy goals on housing or other issues.
With the heavily Republican makeup of the Georgia General Assembly—which is unlikely to change much after the November election—Oakley is not optimistic about lawmakers providing any relief for the city and state’s housing affordability crisis.
“Who was the Beltline built for?” she asked, referring to the plight of EDGE on the Beltline’s Section 8 renters waiting to see if AH and Carter-Haston can resolve whether they’ll be allowed to stay.
The initial idea for the multi-use paved trail, conceived in 1999 as a master’s thesis by then-Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel, sought to create something for everyone by connecting Atlanta’s urban neighborhoods—allowing the city’s highest and lowest earners to get around without a car.
The drama over EDGE on the Beltline’s Section 8 tenants, Oakley said, shows just how far that inclusive vision has fallen off the rails—and what a ways the city and state have to go to make housing accessible for their most underserved residents.