A Conversation with Atlanta City Councilman Andre DickensAndre Dickens
By King Williams
Andre Dickens is the Post-3 At-Large, Atlanta City Councilman, who has been in office since 2013. Andre Dickens has been one of the few councilmen to be outspoken on issues of gentrification and housing affordability.
Dickens was one of the six city council members to vote ‘No’ during November’s controversial Gulch redevelopment project vote. Eight of the 15 councilmembers voted for the project proposed by California-based developer CIM to redevelop the Gulch in downtown Atlanta, a project that could include up to $1.75 billion in public financing.
Dickens is the former Atlanta City Council President Pro-Tem and serves as the chair of the Transportation Committee. He also serves on the Committee on Council, Public Safety & Legal Administration Committee, and Finance/Executive Committee.
Saporta Report: You’re one of the six (of 15) City Council members to vote ‘No’ on the controversial funding of the Gulch development deal. Why?
Andre Dickens: “I voted ‘no,’ but now I want to move forward to make it the best it can be. I felt there was limited oversight…
“The equity goals were in the right direction but needed more teeth and enforcement for the goals to be met. I wanted more commitments to local hiring before during and after construction.
“I wanted to see more minority inclusion and the AMI (Area Median Income) could’ve been made deeper for those making under $45K like, teachers and police officers, especially given such unprecedented amount of economic incentives.”
Councilman Dickens over the last few years has emerged as a champion of affordable housing throughout Atlanta and on the City Council. The next set of questions address inclusionary zoning and affordable housing.
Saporta Report: So how does the affordable housing mandate actually work?
Andre Dickens: “It is required, but they [developers] have the ability to opt-out. And why are they given that opportunity? It’s because of state law.
“If you don’t set aside the 10 percent of affordable units per development, the developer has to pay an in-lieu fee of roughly $190,000 per unit. This then is multiplied times the number of units that should’ve been in that development (10 percent).
“For example, if a developer plans 100 units of market rate housing and wants to opt-out of providing affordable housing, then (the developer) must pay the roughly $190,000 fee per unit, which in this example would be roughly $1.9 million to the city.
“The city would then offer that money to a developer who can build those affordable housing units. And to my knowledge no developer has decided to pay the in-lieu fee as of yet.
“Plus the money has to be used in the same general area. For example, you can’t take that affordable housing money that would be used in the Gulch and develop in another part of the city. The affordable housing HAS to be build in that area.”
Saporta Report: On the issue of inclusionary zoning, is this a mandatory requirement for all developments? Or is this just at the developers behest?
Andre Dickens: “The goal was citywide to create an inclusionary zoning ordinance. Because we have a state law that prohibits rent control in the state of Georgia.
“So we either have to change the law but until it’s addressed by the state lawmakers, we [the City of Atlanta] have worked around that – by saying around places such as the Beltline, Gulch and around the (Mercedes-Benz) stadium, and wherever we have huge public investment, we must have affordable housing.”
Affordable housing in Atlanta has become more pressing, with every year post-great recession seeing housing prices and real estate climbing. This lead to in 2017, Mayor Keshia Lance Bottoms pledged a whopping $1 billion dollars for the development in affordable housing.
The next series of questions are related towards that pledge as well as affordable housing in Atlanta.
Saporta Report: So what’s the deal with the mayor’s $1 billion dollar pledge to affordable housing?
Andre Dickens: “You really have to ask the Mayor’s office. I’m in support of that dollar amount, but I’m not in any leadership position with it.
“But I’m excited in the prospect of what someone like Terri Lee (chief housing Officer) can do, especially with an amount that big and land available.”
Saporta Report: Are there new sites being looked at for affordable housing in Atlanta?
Andre Dickens: “Yes, there are new and old sites ripe for affordable housing development. This is a good question for Atlanta Housing Authority.
“But I will say we have at least six big AHA sites now that we could develop affordable housing on today. Places like Bowen Homes, Herndon Homes and Englewood, (which) in particular has a had a plan for years that has never taken off for whatever the reason.
“I want to be clear I’m talking about mixed-income affordable housing and not concentrated poverty.”
Saporta Report: What will the city be doing to promote more multi-family housing?
Andre Dickens: “Almost all of the developments we’re talking about for affordable housing will be multi-family housing – most of these will be apartments.
“Invest Atlanta’s down payment assistance program is doing great work in the single-family space. So is Habitat for Humanity.”
Saporta Report: What do you think will be the biggest hurdle to cross to ensure Atlanta is affordable 10 years from now?
Andre Dickens: “Paralysis in analysis. We (Atlanta) know what we need to do, but we sometimes get too bogged down on unnecessary things, we just need to do it.”
Saporta Report: Is this the last stand for affordable housing?
Andre Dickens: “I think it’s the last stand. If we can’t get affordability under control now and fast, it will get away from us – especially, if we see an economic downturn.”
Saporta Report: What are some ideas that will help affordability?
Andre Dickens: “See Egbert Perry and the mixed-income model for housing and what he did in de-concentrating poverty in public housing. See what happened in East Lake and Centennial Place for how to make mixed-income housing work.
“We could also be doing more accessory dwelling units in a lot of the backyards in our homes in the city.
“I’d like to see more mixing of financing for down-payments on homes or homeowner assistance programs.
“I’d also like to see us addressing equity issues in transit and better planning around transit.”
Saporta Report: You’re a small business owner in Atlanta. What could be done to foster more business development in downtrodden areas of Atlanta?
Andre Dickens: “I owned a few furniture stores myself, and I think we need to continue to promote the opportunities here. We have DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprises) requirements at 38 percent in the city, and we’ve got to let more people know about opportunities like this.
“I think we’ve got to develop the southside. When the southside folks go to the northside to spend money but get limited reciprocation of economic support, it’s a problem to me. That’s problematic for the recycling of money these communities need.
“We need to start creating more businesses on the southside with people who live in the southside.”
Saporta Report: You’re from Atlanta. With the rate of demographic changes in the city, do you think there will be a day when no one born and raised in Atlanta will be in the City Council?
Andre Dickens: “No. It does concern me still when I see residents move away but there are many legacy residents still here.”
Saporta Report: So that brings me to the topic of gentrification. I myself am a filmmaker who chronicles gentrification and have seen it first-hand – the same as you. In your opinion what is gentrification doing to Atlanta?
Andre Dickens: “I’m proud to be from Atlanta, and I was born six months after Maynard Jackson became the first black Mayor of Atlanta. He professed and delivered economic inclusivity.
“My DNA is attached to this city. Gentrification is an economic and cultural problem. It took a lot of hard work to develop culture here, and if we (Atlanta) can’t preserve it, we’ll lose it.
“Yes, you will have nice restaurants, shops, and building towers. But we must be careful not to become the same gentrified cities with a fractured soul that we see across this country.
“This culture is what has drawn many people and businesses here but we have to create opportunities for participation for the newcomer and the legacy resident.”
Extra Credit: For more information on affordable housing please check out the links below.