Learning from our past for a brighter transit tomorrow

By Guest Columnist NATHANIEL SMITHfounder and chief equity officer (CEqO), Partnership for Southern Equity

More than 100 people attended an event at Georgia Tech recently to mark the release of a report, “Opportunity Deferred: Race, Transportation and the Future of Metropolitan Atlanta,” that was commissioned by the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE).

In painstaking detail, the report documents the historical impact that structural racism and discriminatory policies at the federal and local level have played in shaping our region. Over the years, these divisive policies have conspired to decimate whole neighborhoods and stifle economic advancement, especially for low-income residents and communities of color.

Nathaniel Smith

Nathaniel Smith

Taken together, they have hindered the entire region from reaching its full potential. To avoid repeating the past, we must first acknowledge this troubling history and then courageously commit to charting a different course that leads to more equitable outcomes in the future. For a number of reasons, there is no better time than the present to embark on a more equitable approach.

Last November, voters in the City of Atlanta overwhelmingly supported a half-penny sales tax as a down-payment on a wide range of MARTA expansion projects. On the same ballot, Atlanta voters also passed a separate measure to upgrade city roads, install bike paths and create more pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

Energized by these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to re-shape the region’s racial, social and economic landscape, PSE has teamed up with the TransFormation Alliance (TFA), a broad coalition of organizations whose mission is to connect low and moderate-income households to economic opportunities and affordable housing near transit in the Atlanta region.

To successfully tackle these issues, PSE and TFA are advancing a set of innovative policies and practices, including Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) and a Living Transit Fund (LTF). ETOD is a model that will help working-class residents to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods that are increasingly becoming unaffordable. We’re calling on leaders from metro Atlanta’s public and private sectors to likewise embrace the LTF as a financing mechanism to expand transportation options while minimizing the displacement of residents.

Partnership for Southern Equity, panel

Partnership for Southern Equity unveiled its new report on how government policies have hurt low-income and minority communities at a Jan. 18 event at Georgia Tech. Credit: Partnership for Southern Equity

As a matter of fundamental fairness, low-income Atlantans who have invested in MARTA with their hard-earned dollars for more than 40 years should not subsidize displacement from their own homes and communities now that the transit system is set to expand.

For example, planned development of the Atlanta BeltLine’s light-rail corridor on the west and south sides of the city runs the risk of impacting vulnerable households in much the same way highway construction a generation ago effectively erased parts of Auburn Avenue – Atlanta’s most renowned economic corridor for African-Americans – and also displaced a number of thriving black neighborhoods on the City’s southside.

We can and must do better. The challenges of keeping communities intact and stabilizing at-risk households are well-documented and highlight the pressing need to expand the scope of our public policy toolkit to include ETOD and the LTF.

There are an estimated 328,000 “housing insecure” households in metro Atlanta, which means they’re paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing and transportation costs. Of these households, about 322,000 – 188,000 renters and 134,000 homeowners – are low-income or severely cost-burdened. The remaining 5,500 are homeless.

Those numbers matter because Atlanta is ranked dead last in a recent study conducted by Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley that researched upward mobility in America’s 50 most populated cities.

A child raised in poverty in Atlanta, for example, has only a 4 percent chance of earning a salary comparable to counterparts born into a high-earning family, according to the study. This insidious dynamic is directly tied to geography, concentrated poverty, extensive traffic and an inadequate public transit system which make it extremely difficult to access job opportunities.

To begin addressing these disparities, here’s how a LTF and ETOD would work, and what they would do:

Lochner report

A 1946 transportation planning report for Atlanta suggested construction of highways along routes that would segregate black neighborhoods from the central business district, according to a book by Larry Keating, an emeritus professor at Georgia Tech. Credit: Partnership for Southern Equity

  • MARTA would reserve 5 percent of the $2.5 billion in estimated Transit Sales Tax Revenues to capitalize the LTF. Doing so would generate about $125 million in funds for the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) of MARTA-owned property, Atlanta BeltLine Overlay District property owned by the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.; City of Atlanta; the Atlanta Housing Authority; Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative,;City of Atlanta/Fulton County Land Bank Authority; and for other purposes deemed eligible
  • LTF will then provide grants or low interest loans to for-profit and non-profit developers, or directly to low-income homeowners. Developers will be encouraged to work with non-profit developers when possible and to implement hiring and procurement practices that favor local job seekers, businesses, and disadvantaged and female-headed enterprises;

Provide funding for affordable housing units included in multifamily projects initiated by MARTA’s transit-oriented developments, to support the development of and access to job training and employment centers, for day care, health services and cultural amenities. Funding could also assist in providing rehabilitation, preventive repair, and weatherization of older homes owned by seniors and low-income residents in designated areas.

We envision Invest Atlanta, the city’s development agency, administering the program in cooperation with MARTA. Legal opinions submitted by Emory University’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic and the Southern Environmental Law Center confirm that tax proceeds from the referendum can be used for affordable housing through the LTF.

To make the most of the LTF, the alliance is also advocating for complementary land value capture, a policy which leverages rising property values generated in communities slated for transit improvements in order to finance additional transit and pedestrian infrastructure. We also support strategic land acquisition that will enable the City of Atlanta to coordinate with MARTA to build and operate transit projects that advance long-term priorities, including economic viability and social equity.

Momentum and action around ETOD and affordable housing are mounting, thanks in large part to the leadership of Atlanta city councilmembers Kwanza Hall and Andre Dickens. They have worked with the TFA to draft and unanimously pass resolution 16-R-4041 that addresses the equitable development and implementation of transit projects to include community development and benefits.

Councilmember Dickens most recently introduced Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning and in-lieu fee legislation for the Atlanta BeltLine Overlay and Tax Allocation District. We commend the leadership of these councilmembers, their colleagues and staff in working to develop workable solutions.

Invest Atlanta, the City of Atlanta, MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine are also to be applauded for linking transit goals with affordable housing options and convenient access to high-quality transportation options. Atlanta Public Schools system has taken a step in the right direction with efforts to redevelop vacant properties it owns into mixed-income housing.

We’re pleased these proposed reforms are finally gaining traction; once adopted, they will help undo some of the damage wrought by decades of racist and discriminatory polices that have divided our communities and diminished our human capital. But there is still much at stake and our work has only just begun.

 

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