A 300-unit apartment complex that debuted alongside MARTA’s King Memorial train station earlier this year took about a decade to materialize. The transit authority issued a request for proposals in 2012, and the new rentals finally were ready for occupancy in May—including 100 priced as affordable for families earning less than the area median income.
Those 100 units mark a win in the city of Atlanta’s pursuit of housing affordability. But that kind of wait is too long, as Atlanta becomes increasingly expensive, losing hundreds of affordable residences annually.
That’s where Mayor Andre Dickens’ new Affordable Housing Strike Force aims to change the game. During the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum on Dec. 7, moderator Bill Bolling asked a panel of strike force members, “Are you hopeful?”
Dickens launched the strike force in May in response to the siloed nature of Atlanta’s government agencies that handle housing, which have posed roadblocks to creating and preserving affordable housing.
Across its many agencies, the city is sitting on hundreds of acres of buildable land. But is it, say, Atlanta Public Schools’ (APS) responsibility to build apartments for lower-income people? And should the local housing authority, Atlanta Housing, know that APS—or MARTA, Invest Atlanta, the Atlanta Beltline, or others—has land ripe for residential development and offer assistance?
The strike force brings all those agencies—as well as the Metro Atlanta Land Bank and the nonprofit Atlanta Land Trust—under one big umbrella with one common goal: to execute Dickens’ campaign promise to build and protect 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026.
Strike force members said that they’re hopeful, despite abundant obstacles.
“MARTA’s got land next to APS land next to housing authority land next to [other] city land,” said Joshua Humphries, the mayor’s director of housing and community development. “Together, we can do something really special, but the silos of the different owner agencies are part of what’s gotten in the way of the work.”
With everyone at the same table, these agencies can better coordinate their vision, Humphries added. “An APS site might make more sense for housing long-term, whereas housing authority land might make sense for a school.”
The Atlanta school system is new to affordable housing game, said Daniel Drake, APS’s executive director of facilities services, but it welcomes using its land to build apartments that benefit its students’ families.
“The lack of affordable housing has a huge impact on Atlanta Public Schools,” Drake said. “The fact that we had, over the last 10 years, almost an 80,000-person increase in population within the city of Atlanta, but that our enrollment has been flat, is testimony to the erosion of affordable housing,” he said, in part because many students in lower-income households must frequently transfer from one school to another because their families often relocate when they can’t afford the rent.
APS has identified 47 properties that it owns, including old schools and other parcels, Drake said, that could be developed by another agency in the strike force or leased or sold to private developers to build projects that include affordable housing.
MARTA’s head of transit-oriented development, Jacob Vallo, said the strike force member agencies have already started coordinating on housing development. “I think the mayor’s leadership has been fantastic at getting us together,” he said.
For instance, Humphries, the mayor’s housing director, said the city will soon redevelop 143 Alabama Street, the former Atlanta Constitution building next to the Five Points MARTA station downtown, as affordable housing. The site was earmarked for a revamp over a decade ago, but a plan has languished under two mayoral administrations.
The initial request for proposals was issued in 2010, under then-Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration—two mayors ago—Humphries said. “This strike force has pulled together Invest Atlanta, MARTA, and the city to find a way forward on that project—and we are moving forward with haste and have resurrected that project for the first time in years.”
Atlanta Housing’s chief operating officer, Terri Lee, said the strike force is showing promise, but hurdles still abound. Land with potential for housing isn’t always development-ready, she said, often due to the cost of necessary infrastructure improvements. Atlanta Housing estimates that it costs about $1.1 million per acre to build that infrastructure, based on data for sites it’s redeveloping.
“I am hopeful, but I don’t want us to leave here thinking there are not challenges,” Lee said. “When I think about our portfolio at Atlanta Housing, we’re redeveloping some sites that have been vacant for over 10 to 15 to maybe even 20 years—and those sites have a huge need for infrastructure improvements.”
Still, Lee said, the strike force partnership puts the housing authority in a better position to activate the more than 800 acres of land it controls.
“If I’ve ever been hopeful in the city of Atlanta, I’m hopeful now that all the stars have aligned—and we not only have grace and hope, but we have political will, political urgency, and the capacity to get it done,” Lee said.
Editor’s note: Bill Bolling is the chairman of Atlanta Civic Circle’s board of directors.