By Maria Saporta
Recent actions by the Atlanta Housing Authority need to be viewed through a magnifying glass.
Despite owning hundreds of acres of land, AHA is spending millions of dollars to buy more land from the City of Atlanta, another public entity.
AHA couches these land deals as helping fulfill its goal to develop more affordable housing in the City of Atlanta. But over the past eight years, AHA has not developed any new housing units on its significant land holdings.
And given the current federal investigation of bribery during the administration of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, it is an opportune time to find out what’s behind AHA’s recent activities.
An obvious question is the relationship between former Mayor Reed and AHA.
As reported in SaportaReport on Friday, Catherine Buell, AHA’s president and CEO, has refused to submit a resignation letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. It appears that Buell is the only official in Bottoms’ administration to not tender her resignation as Bottoms requested.
Buell’s letter to Bottoms stated that she works for the AHA board, and she referred any questions regarding her employment to AHA’s board chairman – Dr. Christopher Edwards.
(Two other city officials who work for boards – Brian McGowan of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and Eloisa Klementich of Invest Atlanta – have submitted their letters of resignation at Mayor Bottoms’ request).
Buell must know that every one of AHA’s current board members were appointed or reappointed by Reed, who also was instrumental in hiring Buell to her current position.
By refusing to submit a letter of resignation, Buell basically is saying that she does not believe she reports to Bottoms. So it makes one wonder whether she feels she still reports to Reed.
It did not go unnoticed that “private citizen” Reed recently attended one of AHA’s board meetings. That raised eyebrows over his involvement with the Authority’s activities.
Many recent AHA deals are worth looking into. Some have even suggested that Bottoms should launch an independent audit of AHA’s operations.
Before leaving office, Reed pushed through a deal to sell the 19-acre Civic Center site to the Atlanta Housing Authority for $31 million. Again, why?
Why would the Authority spend $31 million to buy more land and to develop the property so that 30 percent of the units would be affordable?
The City could have entered into a private deal and mandated developers to include affordable housing. Then the City could have partnered with AHA to have that $31 million actually go to providing more affordable housing rather than just buying more land.
Similar questions could be asked over last week’s move by AHA to buy 7.78 acres of former Morris Brown College property in Vine City for $3.325 million. The Invest Atlanta board approved that sale at its last board meeting, although one board member – Julian Bene – voted against it, questioning whether it was in the best interest of the City to sell the land at that price.
(It was Mayor Reed who pushed the City into buying the Morris Brown College property in 2014 in what is turning out to be the worst real estate deal in the City’s history. Just last week, the Georgia Supreme Court finally ruled that half of the Morris Brown land the City bought actually belongs to Clark Atlanta University).
Apparently, AHA is under the gun to show the federal government that it will fulfill the commitments that it made to receive a $30 million Choice grant so it needs to buy the Morris Brown property along Sunset Avenue to show it is making progress.
AHA is hoping to enter into a public-private partnership with McCormick Baron Salazar, a reputable national developer of affordable housing.
But it is not clear whether that development would be true to the Westside Future Fund’s land-use master plan that has been approved by the City of Atlanta.
“I’m on the board of the Westside Future Fund as an ex-officio member so we’ll work with them,” Buell said after the Invest Atlanta meeting. “We are committed to buying land in areas of opportunity. We do both – buy and develop land.”
Other recent AHA actions have raised questions.
For instance, why has the AHA board not been willing to approve the CF Foundation’s plans to refinance the Villages at East Lake so it can renovate the residences?
And why has AHA spent its energy, time and money to enter into lawsuits aimed at preventing developer Egbert Perry from executing the options he has to buy AHA property adjacent to his existing developments, which he intends to develop?
Buell’s refusal to submit her resignation to Bottoms only invites more attention to AHA’s activities. Ultimately, Bottoms may need to exert control over AHA’s board. By law, all seven AHA board members are appointed by the Atlanta mayor, so Bottoms would need to replace at least four of them to gain control.
No matter what, AHA’s recent actions need to be independently scrutinized.