By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, professor of the practice of planning at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture and a former commissioner of planning and community development for the City of Atlanta
Against the backdrop of an antagonistic and often toxic campaign season, two opportunities are emerging that could begin to lift Atlanta out of its wealth gap, the city’s own divisive and persistent stain.
First, the Gold Dome surprised Atlantans by allowing us to decide on transit options that work for a major city’s vibrant mix of needs and priorities and build a transit system that could emerge as world class.
Second, the Atlanta City Council took a first step toward making housing more affordable in an action that placed affordability requirements on some multifamily projects.
Transit access is a key obstacle for unemployed people to get a job and a key tool for reducing congestion. And many of the city’s one-off moves of the past few years have displaced, dislocated, and isolated people who need this access and affordability. The resulting patterns have worsened conditions for people who occupy the low wealth, disrespected and forgotten swath of neighborhoods from northwest through southeast Atlanta.
They have contributed to the city occupying the basement among major American cities for its wealth gap, measured by the GINI index. And perhaps more damning is a Harvard/Berkeley study conclusion that our kids in poverty have the least chance of any city to escape it – no rungs on the ladder to upward mobility.
What if Atlanta could use this new upwelling of possibilities to climb out of its shame and claim the greatest national reduction in its wealth divide, the greatest improvement in the prospects for its low wealth children, and set out on a path to become a city for all?
Between the ‘60s and the ‘90s, the city of Atlanta lost 100,000 people and began to lose its primacy as the region’s jobs and economic development center. Since the Olympics, albeit dampened by recession, the city has experienced moderate and sustained growth in population and new investment, ticking up even now. The city itself has risen to become very competitive in the metro area in attracting new investors, employers and residents. So it has resources.
Unfortunately, the projects where public subsidy dollars are being spent – the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Atlanta BeltLine, Fort Mac, (with hope still out there for the Turner Field redevelopment) – have skewed away from maintaining affordability, providing better access, or providing significant numbers of jobs for those who most need them.
Instead, they have displaced stable, mixed income neighborhoods, ignored low wealth neighborhoods, and so tended to exacerbate and highlight the wealth gap in our city.
Now, with the opportunity to get transit right and the possibility of city-private sector recognition of the importance of neighborhood stabilization against the ravages of residential displacement and gentrification, the city could use its resources to make good on the vision of a city for all.
Both at the local and the regional scale, the problem that the city could begin to address is often called the “jobs-housing mismatch.” Here, people who need affordable housing often have to “drive ‘til they qualify” for mortgages that they can afford. The tragedy and failure of this option is that what they save in house payments they lose in travel costs to get to their jobs, and they both cause and suffer the consequences of traffic congestion in the bargain.
Diverting and shortening car trips with the choice of closer-in housing, coupled with what already are emerging choices for non-car alternatives, like taking MARTA rail, hopping on a bus, cycling, or just walking, begins to frame a better picture for how we get to a city for all.
The access obstacles that loom large for the unemployed begin to disappear, so that the 20 percent plus of Atlantans living below the poverty line can begin to participate in the mainstream economy. Kids and their families begin to be able to live in more income and race diverse neighborhoods. The base for demanding better education for all broadens.
The transit focus, then, should be on getting people across all income ranges to the places they need or want to get to. These are the major concentrations of jobs, services, hospitals, shopping, amenities, cultural and sports venues. Today, that means Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, the CDC/Emory area, and emerging concentrations around Historic Fourth Ward Park.
These are the places where the infrastructure is in place to serve and absorb the lion’s share of the city’s growth over the next couple of decades. Here will be the kinds of jobs, services, and residential densities (if mixed income) that make these areas walkable and attractive to the crosscut of metro Atlanta’s citizens. And, importantly, daytime is when the city is at work and play, when people need and use the infrastructure and amenities to which good transit provides access. And our centers’ daytime demographic profile is diverse, comparable to that of the region as a whole in terms of mix of income, ethnicity, age, and gender.
These, then, are the areas where transit service expansion and closer-in housing strategies should be aiming to prioritize. This means buses, where buses arrive frequently and predictably, where the stops are sheltered, safe, digitally connected, well lit, and altogether cool to look at and be in. Fixing and promoting a really well connected bus network can begin to be delivered right away, at costs and delivery time a fraction of any rail or other more capital-intensive alternatives.
To put the tradeoffs in perspective, the cost of tricked out bus shelters, installed, averages about $25,000 each. The $1 million approved recently by Invest Atlanta for an environmental consultant to study a two-and-a-half mile piece of the proposed east-west streetcar would buy 40 bus shelters.
Specific to the housing opportunity, there are a number of initiatives underway that provide glimmers of hope, potentially rewarding an intrepid, dedicated, and long-suffering community of equitable housing advocates that have been convening for some 30 years under the banner of the Regional Housing Forum.
The recent action by the Atlanta City Council to tie public funding for residential development to the provision of at least some affordable units, under the leadership of Councilmember Andre Dickens, is a great start. While the metrics, 15 percent of units available to people whose income is at or below 80 percent of the Area Median Income, are a little pallid for meeting the greatest needs, the move signals a concrete commitment by the city to kick open the door to affordability. In the works, too, are modifications in the city’s Zoning Ordinance to echo such provisions for allowing development of multifamily complexes.
The Regional Housing Forum, too, is actively seeking ways to raise funding to reactivate the city’s Housing Opportunity Bond Fund, where $100 million or more could begin to write down land costs and other cost impediments to providing closer-in housing.
Seizing the opportunities of a sensible transit future linked with overhauling our approach to neighborhood stabilization and affordable housing should allow us to understand the real and present wealth gap problems comprehensively and to get at solving them, opening up the city for all Atlantans.