When Mayor Andre Dickens announced a plan to create an “affordable housing strike force” during his first State of the City address last April, he billed it as “a one-stop shop to oversee all our affordable housing needs.”
The aim of the strike force is to centralize the efforts of all city agencies that own land that could be used for housing initiatives—including Invest Atlanta, Atlanta Housing, Atlanta Public Schools, the Atlanta Beltline, MARTA, the Metro Atlanta Land Bank, and the nonprofit Atlanta Land Trust. It is composed of those agencies’ heads and led by a top advisor to the mayor, Courtney English.
One year later, Dickens assured Atlantans the team was well on its way to building and preserving 20,000 units of affordable housing by 2030—a top promise from his mayoral campaign.
“So far, we have delivered over 1,900 units, and have another 5,400 currently under development,” Dickens said during his State of the City speech on March 28. “We’re serious about this.”
“So serious, as a matter of fact, that we just bought a skyscraper in downtown Atlanta and are now in the process of converting it into what will become the tallest residential building in Atlanta with hundreds of affordable housing units,” he added, referring to the 2 Peachtree project.
After a slow rollout, the strike force now has 32 affordable housing projects on public land in the works.
Thirteen are slated for development on Atlanta Housing property, three on Beltline property, six on land owned by MARTA, three on sites co-owned by the Metro Atlanta Land Bank, and seven on parcels controlled by Invest Atlanta, according to Josh Humphries, the mayor’s senior housing policy advisor, who works with the strike force.
Since June, when the strike force launched in earnest, the city has issued requests for proposals for four sites on city-owned land—at downtown’s 184 Forsyth Street, a parking lot by the Garnett MARTA station owned by Invest Atlanta; at MARTA’s Arts Center station, in Midtown; 579 Garson Street in South Buckhead, owned by Atlanta Beltline; and Atlanta Housing property in Mechanicsville, just south of Interstate 20.
It has also selected developers to build housing on a site owned by MARTA near its Bankhead station, the Beltline’s Murphy Crossing property in the Oakland City neighborhood, and the housing authority’s Bowen Homes and Atlanta Civic Center sites.
Invest Atlanta expects to issue a request for qualifications for the redevelopment of the 2 Peachtree office tower next to the Five Points MARTA station, in coming months, Humphries said, and the city should unveil a clearer vision for the revitalization of the Thomasville Heights neighborhood—which lost 396 units accepting Section 8 vouchers when the infamous Forest Cove apartments were condemned and vacated last year—in coming weeks.
How much is really affordable?
But it’s unclear how many of these units will be “deeply affordable” for residents earning less than half of the area median income (AMI)—or under $48,200 for a family of four.
“We don’t have that info rolled up,” Humphries said. “Several of these projects are still in final due diligence and developer selection, so those details aren’t nailed down.”
Housing advocates have long criticized the city for promoting the development of housing that’s affordable mostly for middle-income Atlantans, instead of for the city’s lowest-income renters, by providing units typically priced for households earning 60% to 80% or greater of the AMI for Atlanta.
“Those who are at 0% to 30% AMI are suffering the most,” community organizer Foluke Nunn, with the American Friends Service Committee, said. “There are few incentives in place for developers to prioritize these households.”
Still, Natallie Keiser, the executive director of HouseATL, sponsored by the Atlanta Community Foundation, told Atlanta Civic Circle the strike force is making progress toward developing affordable housing on city-owned land, even as it faces major funding hurdles.
“It’s evident that affordable housing continues to be a top priority for the mayor and that the strike force is improving coordination among public entities,” she said.
But Keiser said the city can’t go it alone, as costs for infrastructure and construction continue to increase.
“For these projects to include units for people who are at very low incomes—where we have the greatest and most urgent supply gap—predictable grant fund sources such as those allocated annually to the City’s Beloved Community Housing Trust Fund are going to be necessary,” she said. “In some cases, infrastructure costs, such as water, sewer, and stormwater management, will be a challenge that civic leadership is going to need to help address.”
City efforts must rely heavily on funding from local philanthropic entities and nonprofits, such as the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and Partners for Home, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with the mandate of reducing homelessness, and from the federal and state government, which offer tax breaks and other incentives for housing development.
For instance, Keiser added, “the state of Georgia’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit also plays a critical role in ensuring that we are able to fully draw on federal sources. Due to how expensive it has become to deliver affordable housing, it takes layering several sources to complete each project.”
20,000 units “not enough”
All told, the city of Atlanta has a lot in its affordable housing hopper, but far from enough to counteract the development forces that are making intown living increasingly expensive.
Alison Johnson, head of the nonprofit Housing Justice League, told Atlanta Civic Circle that 20,000 affordable units is “clearly not enough.”
“Not even a drop in the bucket,” she said in an email, noting that the city must do a better job of providing “deeply affordable” rentals and provide fewer tax breaks to developers who produce very few affordable apartment units in return.
To really increase the number of affordable units for lower-income Atlantans, Eric Kronberg, of Kronberg Urbanists + Architects, said, Atlanta’s planning department must revise its zoning policies to encourage denser development.
“Imagine Atlanta is a really popular restaurant; lines are out the door, people are waiting to get in,” he said. “What we are advocating for is adding more chairs at the tables. Our position is that minimum seating sizes mean only the wealthiest get a seat, and there is a ton of space in the restaurant where more tables could easily be added.”
As thousands of affordable units vanish across the metro area annually, replaced by flashy new homes and apartment complexes, the affordable housing strike force—in tandem with other city offices—faces an increasingly big job to, as Dickens put it last year, keep housing within reach “for working class people who want to call our city home.”