Atlanta leaders work on legislative agenda: thinking affordability, assessments and airport

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms met with state lawmakers who represent Atlanta, at a Capitol meeting room on Friday. Credit: Maggie Lee

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms met with state lawmakers who represent Atlanta, at a Capitol meeting room on Friday. Credit: Maggie Lee

Atlanta’s elected officials under the Gold Dome and at City Hall are working against a tight state deadline to figure out if they want to lobby for new laws or flexibility to set policy on affordability, renters’ rights, tax assessments and more.

On Friday, new Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and near a dozen of Atlanta’s state lawmakers and other elected officials converged in a Capitol meeting room to strategize. But the sand is draining through the hourglass quickly: four of the state Legislature’s 40 business days are already finished.

One of the biggest grievances Atlanta elected officials hear is that property tax bills are so high that residents can’t afford them, that property taxes are contributing to Atlanta’s lack of affordable housing. That even modest homes people have occupied for decades now cost hundreds of dollars a month in taxes because of the related difficulties of gentrification and a recent attempt to catch up on lagging assessments.

But at the same time, those taxes do pay for schools, parks and city services; and it’s painful and difficult for governments to find ways to cut those if less tax money is coming in.

Last year, Bottoms, who was then on City Council, and several of her colleagues signed a resolution urging the Legislature to set up a public vote that could have limited the increase on tax assessments on homestead properties to three percent a year.

That is, if a house occupied by its owner is valued at $100,000 in one year, the next its new value could be no higher than $103,000.

Bottoms said on Friday that there’s concern from the city’s financial analysts on how such a cap could impact the budget. She said she’s not now supportive of that cap but would continue to keep lawmakers posted.

State Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, chairs the Atlanta House delegation. She said she sees two discussions about affordability. One is for the short term — how to deal with assessments in the next year or so.

“We need to compensate for the mess that city appraisals are in,” she said.

The Fulton County Commission essentially threw out 2017 assessments countywide because they jumped so much and went back to 2016 numbers. That, in turn, upended the Atlanta and Fulton school systems’ budgeting. Some north Fulton cities are looking at capping assessments.

But the other discussion is longer-term: how to help people stay in their homes.

State Rep. Park Cannon, also an Atlanta Democrat, has spent the last few months co-chairing a group of Atlanta legislators who are looking into affordability and who are listening to residents, to activists and to other stakeholders and looking to see what needs to be done under the Gold Dome.

The reason state lawmakers and city lawmakers need to coordinate is because state law often dictates what cities can do, just as federal law limits what states can do. Atlanta City Council couldn’t, for example, enact rent control even if they wanted to. State law bars cities from defining the prices of housing.

But rent control is one of several topics Cannon and her colleagues are working on. There’s no bill yet, but one idea is asking that Atlanta itself get some local control in that area.

She and others are also looking into renters’ rights and evictions. “We do see that the legal landscape is very difficult for people who are experiencing eviction  and that they’re not really able to get … legal services,” said Cannon.

There’s also talk of using Georgia’s community land trust law in some way. In a land trust, a homeowner only owns the actual building, and that’s all they pay taxes on. The trust owns the land on which the house sits and pays the taxes on that.

While it’s a fairly unfamiliar model in Atlanta, so-called “leaseholds” of homes or apartments are common in some countries.

(Atlanta lawmakers are looking for more public input on affordability. There’s a public town hall meeting scheduled on Thursday, Jan. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at Carver High School Auditorium. Cannon and her colleague State. Rep. David Dreyer are hosting.)

Georgia's state Capitol building. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Georgia’s state Capitol building. Credit: Kelly Jordan

In other legislative issues, Bottoms touched on the airport. The city oversees Hartsfield-Jackson. But some state lawmakers, generally not from Atlanta, have from time to time proposed taking some control of it — and its profits.

Vague rumors that some kind of state airport control proposal is in the works has reached SR’s ears, but on the other hand, there is always lot of overheated talk in the Capitol that never sparks a fire.

Bottoms, however, is on the offensive against airport governance changes.

“It’s interesting that there are conversations about the governing authority of the airport given that we are the best airport in the world, so I’m not sure why we want to tamper with a good thing,” Bottoms told lawmakers.

She told them that with any governmental entity, there will be challenges, but that the airport is running well.

“Be mindful that even as we talk about investigation into some of the issues we’ve had at City Hall, there’s been speculation that it relates to the airport but there’s been no formal indictment or formal information that this is in any way related to the airport,” said Bottoms.  She also said that the power outage was unfortunate but that they’re working diligent to address it.

Want to see the whole Friday meeting? Dreyer livestreamed it on Facebook.

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