Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens campaigned on lofty promises to boost intown housing affordability, and during his first year in office, his team focused as much—if not more—on that issue as any other. Still, hurdles abound as the clock ticks down on 2022. The new year promises new challenges and, if advocates keep the new chief executive’s feet to the fire, new solutions.

The past 12 months have been a whirlwind for those keeping score on intown housing initiatives. The mayor’s office estimates that under Dickens’ leadership the city of Atlanta has delivered nearly 1,800 affordable housing units in 2022, with almost 4,000 more under construction. That puts his administration on track to produce and preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2026, one of Dickens’ top campaign goals. But the job is far from finished.

Dickens exemplified hands-on leadership right out of the gate, taking on the daunting push to rehouse over 200 residents long stuck at the Southside’s infamously dilapidated and dangerous Forest Cove Apartments and choreographing a monumental relocation effort that wrapped in October

He brokered a deal in February to squash a years-long legal beef between the city housing authority, Atlanta Housing (AH), and developers over building rights to 81 acres of AH-owned land, and then helped to stave off the Buckhead cityhood movement, which could have made renting and owning in the tony neighborhood and the city at large impossible for even more Atlantans. 

Last spring, the mayor traded out housing authority board holdovers from previous mayoral administrations for a handful of bona fide housing experts and pushed AH to move forward with the long-overdue redevelopment of Old Fourth Ward’s idle Atlanta Civic Center property and the Westside’s former Bowen Homes public housing site. AH picked the joint venture of Republic Properties, the Michaels Organization, and Sophy Capital as the master developer for the $1 billion Civic Center project and the team of The Benoit Group and McCormack Baron Salazar for the $607 million Bowen Homes revamp. (Both projects call for affordable housing, though critics have said not nearly enough.)

But Dickens also bid farewell to a progressive City Planning Department leader, Tim Keane (who left in February to become the city planner in Boise, Idaho), and replaced him with one from the private sector, Jahnee Prince, whose goals for the city—especially as they relate to residential zoning—remain mysterious, as the planning department gears up for a massive and long-overdue zoning code overhaul, dubbed ATL Zoning 2.0.

And the mayor nearly bungled the launch of a new affordable housing trust fund, only announcing he’d draw $7.3 million from the city’s general fund for 2023, as directed by an Atlanta City Council ordinance, after activists complained inflation was no excuse for bailing on the promise. He slow-rolled the debut of the Affordable Housing Strike Force, only clarifying its ambitious strategy to consolidate development plans for land owned by various city agencies in recent weeks, and he’s not yet appointed a cabinet-level chief housing officer—a post left vacant in late 2020, which Dickens said he’d fill last March. 

All told, the Dickens administration “has taken some important steps to address our population’s need for secure housing,” said Natallie Keiser, the head of advocacy group HouseATL. “But there is a tremendous amount of focused work needed for 2023 and beyond.”

Bryan Thomas, Dickens’ top spokesperson, said last week that the mayor’s office is funneling thousands more affordable units into Atlanta’s development pipeline through housing strike force initiatives and other public projects, while teeing the city up to place 1,500 families experiencing homelessness in stable housing by the end of 2024.

But plenty of stars must align for the new administration to achieve its mission of providing 20,000-affordable units—housing that’s critically needed as Atlanta residents grapple with a deepening affordable housing crisis. 

“The dramatic lack of sufficient affordable housing requires resource coordination and systems improvements among public, private, and nonprofit entities,” Keiser, the HouseATL leader, said. “And, engagement by individual advocates is also critical to change.”

Georgia State University urban studies professor Dan Immergluck, who is perhaps the city’s most ardent critic when it comes to housing policy, cautioned that some of the Dickens administration’s accomplishments were the outcome of actions by previous Atlanta leaders. 

The current mayor must step on the gas to make meaningful progress toward housing affordability, he said. For instance, Dickens’ AH board appointees are “certainly knowledgeable about affordable housing,” Immergluck said, “but I have yet to see actions that indicate a clear shift in the housing authority’s actions.”

The initial plans for the Civic Center and Bowen Homes sites, Immergluck added, called for “far too little deeply affordable housing,” meaning homes priced for households earning less than half of the area median income—or $48,200 annually for a family of four.

“Mixed-income projects are fine, but should be judged primarily based on whether the higher-income units generate cross-subsidy to support ones for very low-income families,” he said.

Immergluck said taxing commercial properties at a higher rate to offset “severe undertaxation” could significantly boost affordable housing funding. That should be “the biggest policy item right now for city leaders,” he added, but “the jury is still out.” Dickens has shown an appetite for that kind of reform, but it would still require Fulton County support to be realized, the urban housing expert said.

Compounding these challenges is the staggering lack of protections for lower-income renters, especially those who rely on government support to pay rent.

Atlanta City Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari last month championed legislation calling on public agencies—including AH, Invest Atlanta, the Atlanta Beltline, MARTA, and the Fulton County Development Authority—to add caveats to publicly subsidized development deals requiring developers and landlords to accept Section 8 rent vouchers.

However, housing advocates warn the new resolution lacks teeth and that renters using Section 8 vouchers need further anti-discrimination safeguards to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to them.

Those changes would require the Georgia Legislature to revise a statewide law barring local governments from legislating fair housing laws that are broader than the state’s—something Immergluck said Dickens should lobby for.

Potentially the most impactful policy changes coming down the pike, however, will stem from the city planning department’s ongoing zoning code rewrite, although the office’s direction for ATL Zoning 2.0 remains unclear.

Keane, the former planning commissioner, envisioned doing away with restrictive single-family-only residential zoning, but his successor, Prince, has revealed little about her goals for modernizing the outdated zoning code, which hasn’t been overhauled in 40 years. 

Local urbanists say Atlanta must become more welcoming to diverse housing types, like accessory dwelling units or small- and mid-sized apartment complexes, to foster affordability, but they have called the planning department’s community outreach efforts for public input on ATL Zoning 2.0 “confusing” for non-wonks, spurring worries that heavily involved NIMBYists (those with “not in my backyard” mindsets) could play an outsize role, particularly for the residential portions of the zoning code rewrite.

Dickens faces plenty of roadblocks in making Atlanta an affordable place to live for its lower-income residents—including Wall Street’s extensive grip on the housing market, the state legislature’s friendliness with landlords and investors, and the scarcity of funding relative to the huge need for affordable housing development. Atlanta Civic Circle will keep its microscope trained on his administration’s moves every step of the way as we head into 2023 and beyond.

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1 Comment

  1. Important, cogent, prescient and pellucid! Thanks to Sean Keenan for keeping the City focused on this issue

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