By Sonam Vashi
The Atlanta City Council unanimously approved plans on Monday for the Echo Street Communities development in English Avenue, one of the first large-scale developments in the area that has triggered strong alarm among many residents concerned about gentrification on the Westside.
The affordable housing plans for the project, which also includes thousands of square feet in office space and retail, will match the city’s guidelines, with about 30 additional, more affordable units still being discussed.
The development, located at the intersection of Northside Drive and Donald Hollowell Parkway and proposed by Brock Built Homes and partners, will be required to have 20 percent of its 718 rental units and 40 townhomes to be at 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). That means that those approximately 144 units will have a cost similar to $1,348 per month for a two-bedroom, or $1,736 for a four-bedroom. The rest of the units will go for the market rate: an expected $1,800 per month for a two-bedroom or $2,160 for a three-bedroom, according to council documents.
Those 144 affordable units are what the city’s guidelines require, but this development is also happening in a neighborhood where the median family income is about $1,300 per month, less than a third of that of the whole city of Atlanta. The average English Avenue resident wouldn’t be able to afford the “affordable” units at 80 percent of the AMI, let alone a market-rate unit.
The developers are still in talks with Invest Atlanta and the Westside Future Fund to see how to fund an additional 30 units, or about 5 percent of development, at 30 percent of the AMI. Those would be rents geared toward a family of four making about $2,100 per month; the cost of a two-bedroom would be $520 per month or $844 for a four-bedroom—much more attainable for current residents of the area.
Councilman Ivory Lee Young, who represents English Avenue, said these additional 30 units depend on the receipt of a subsidy from groups such as Invest Atlanta or the Westside Future Fund. Invest Atlanta is the city’s economic development arm, and the Westside Future Fund is a nonprofit established during former mayor Kasim Reed’s administration and is funded by the city and entities like the Chick-fil-A Foundation and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
The development itself is covering the cost of the 144 units at 80 percent of the AMI. Wesley DeFoor of DeFoor Ventures, one of the development partners, said that the developers, nonprofits, and community were “very close” to finalizing a plan for the other 30 units and it’s “very promising,” but that they had no timeline at this time.
Passionate pushback regarding the project’s density and affordability from the English Avenue and Vine City communities immediately followed the project’s plans earlier this year, which ignored a land use plan created by Westside communities that was approved by City Council in December 2017.
Public comment, which immediately preceded the project’s approval at Monday’s council meeting, largely consisted of residents from English Avenue and neighboring Vine City asking City Council not to approve the development’s plans due to concerns about gentrification.
However, Young introduced Monday’s motion for approval by noting that the voices of neighborhood residents and advocates—including several splintered factions—had been the catalyst for a series of contentious meetings between the developer and the public that made the project closer to the Westside’s original land use plan, diminishing the its size and removing a planned 11th floor. DeFoor said he was “very excited that we were able to get the community engaged and find some common ground.”
In his remarks, Young said that the developer was having difficulty getting financing in this “unproven” part of Westside and that the land that the project will be built on was expensive, costing about $1 million per acre. He also said that there was a Community Benefits Agreement in the works with the developers, with amenities like community meeting space and services such as the demolition of nearby vacant homes on the table.
Stephen Causby, an involved resident of English Avenue, didn’t attend the City Council meeting but said he was “encouraged” by the discussion of including the 5 percent of units at 30 percent AMI.
“It was really important for us to go to the mat for this,” Causby said. “We wanted more than 5 percent, but this is a good start, and it’s a signal for future development that we’re not going to accept just market-rate units, or units that are only at 80 percent of AMI.”
State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, whose constituents include those in English Avenue, said that she saw a “level of progress” today but hopes that Councilman Young will follow through with the remaining discussions needed to secure the additional 5 percent of units at 30 AMI.
Causby referenced the importance of securing truly affordable housing in an area with such a deep-rooted civil rights legacy, which includes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former home. As Causby said: “I think we’ve got to fight for something better than just gentrification on the Westside. ”