By Steven Labovitz
The cityscape, culture, and even color of our bustling city in the forest is changing faster these days than most people’s socks.
Everywhere in Atlanta massive, new structures are going up as older, crumbling ones are razed. What was once a blighted factory on the east side is now trendy loft space whose monthly rent fetches more than the sticker on some first-time cars, and that pockmarked midtown parking lot is now a luxury high-rise with celebrity-ready amenities.
But as the city and its glimmering new skyline grow, so too is an insidious affordable housing crunch that’s forcing low- and middle-income earners to move farther and farther away from the city center, even as public transportation options remain virtually nonexistent.
Consider Old Fourth Ward, whose transformation from to one of the city’s most desirable (and costliest) neighborhoods is nothing short of miraculous. According to one recent study, rents in this eastside neighborhood, which is stitched to midtown by the Beltline and features Ponce City Market, have shot up a dizzying 59 percent in the last decade.
The human drama of the complex marriage between gentrification and urban displacement isn’t unique to just the eastside. Of the more than 10,000 new apartments that have sprung up across in-town neighborhoods since 2013, fully 95 percent are styled by developers as “luxury” city living.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: these luxury residential offerings are good for our city. They’re luring millennials away from trendy, youthful enclaves like New York and Seattle, and separately drawing families back from the traffic-plagued suburbs. But their arrivals come at the expense of those who’ve called Old Fourth Ward, and many other transitioning in-town neighborhoods like it, home for decades.
This isn’t a crisis borne of resourcefulness, but one of resolve. Politicians shy from thorny issues like this because doing so invites the possibility they get pricked. Meanwhile, the thorny vine spreads.
Last week, the voters of Atlanta whittled the field of mayoral hopefuls from 12 to just two, both current Atlanta City Councilwomen: Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood. Come January, one of them will preside over our city, and their willingness to engage on smart housing policy will determine the flavor of our city at a transformative moment.
The complexity of the affordable housing puzzle box has been exacerbated by the elusiveness of readily accessible solutions. Instead, some have bowed to base instinct to pursue cheap, emotional answers when confronted with complex challenges. But simply designating an area a displacement-free (that is, eviction-free) zone isn’t a real solution.
Recently, the city council took the smart step of empowering the city’s procurement and real estate offices to identify surplus municipally-owned properties that could potentially converted into affordable housing. The various properties, which would be vetted by the City’s Office of Housing and Community Development and later the City Council, would be made available to developers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, to be converted to below-market affordable housing at a rate of five per year.
It’s a step in the right direction. We need a dozen more like it. And we need our city to begin engaging in earnest the various stake holders and thought-leaders from across Atlanta, like the Council for Quality Growth and the Urban Land Institute. We need to define, as a city, what affordability means, and we need to begin charting and implementing a holistic plan to make it happen.
Atlanta’s mayor and city council have tremendous power to shape the local housing landscape. They need to dig their heels into inclusionary housing policy, density bonuses, and community development programs that bring together the various stakeholders.
People of all color, education, and wealth should be able to live in the City of Atlanta, and we shouldn’t let tepid or shallow public policy prevent it.
Steven Labovitz is a senior partner in the global law practice Dentons. A former chief of staff of the City of Atlanta, he specializes in economic development at the intersection of business and government.