Bottoms, Biden and the politics of ‘affirmatively furthering fair housing’
By David Pendered
Atlanta’s initiative that couples racial equity and affordable housing, and President Biden’s order on redressing discriminatory federal housing policies, are rooted in progressive policies that were enhanced by presidents Clinton and Obama. They trace back to a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the Fair Housing Act.
As fate would have it, Atlanta’s initiative was announced between Biden’s election and his memorandum in January for the federal government to redress its discriminatory housing practices.
In between those events, Biden nominated Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as vice chair of the Democratic Party. Bottoms is charged with the vital duties of promoting civic engagement and voter protection.
In addition, the mayor has said she will stand for reelection this year. By the time the campaign heats up, this Summer and Fall, the mayor’s progressive housing initiative could be on full display through the legislative processes of the Neighborhood Planning Units and Atlanta City Council.
For Bottoms, the initiative overseen by City Planning Commissioner Tim Keane adds elements of social justice to her vow in the 2017 mayoral campaign to expand Atlanta’s inventory of affordable housing.
The mayor has not fulfilled those ambitions. Bottoms did win approval, in January, of a $100 million housing bond to build and retain affordable dwellings. Even in an election year, the Atlanta City Council supported a new debt that is to be repaid from city tax revenues.
The borrowing is structured in such a way that its full impact will not be felt in the budget the council is to approve by June 30 – nor in the tax rate set to fund the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
When Bottoms announced the initiative, she observed in a Dec. 3, 2020 statement:
- “For too long, housing policies have excluded those who are most vulnerable, particularly communities of color. We are taking bold actions to reverse these policies and close the homeownership gap and rental affordability for legacy residents of Atlanta.”
The initiative is part of the Atlanta City Design project, the city’s overarching effort to reshape itself for the 21st century. This chapter, “Housing,” traces the history of Atlanta’s zoning codes, and the effect they’ve had on matters including income inequality, housing values in communities of color, and educational attainment in Black neighborhoods. Sources include researcher and author Richard Rothstein, who’s been embraced by Atlanta’s housing advocates since 2017, when he cited Atlanta in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
The “Housing” initiative cites 11 measures the city could take to address the legacy it identifies. City Planning officials visited Neighborhood Planning Units in January to explain the proposals, which were described in a planning blog.
The mayor does not appear to have publicly unpacked the initiative, nor has she indicated how she may seek to implement recommendations. Bottoms’ office confirmed receipt of, but did not respond to, a request on March 4 for a timeline of such a legislative initiative.
Details on the 11 proposals are available on the initiative’s website under the tab, ‘A Better Future, Together.” The 11 proposals are headlined:
- End exclusionary single-family zoning;
- Make Accessory Dwelling Units easier to build and buy;
- Allow small apartment buildings by-right near transit;
- End minimum parking requirements citywide;
- Increase density in the Growth Areas;
- Reduce minimum lot size requirements;
- Distribute dedicated affordable housing more equitably across the city;
- Expand the Urban Enterprise Zone Program;
- Create affordability districts near major public investment projects;
- Leverage publicly owned vacant land;
- Expand the Housing Innovation Lab.
At the federal level, Biden wants to roll back an initiative of the Trump administration regarding housing discrimination. The rule, “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice,” reduced the role of the federal government in requiring local governments to affirmatively address housing discrimination. The rule superseded a rule enacted by the Obama administration. Trump’s HUD Secretary Ben Carson said, even before taking office at HUD, that the Obama-era rule did not provide adequate guidance to local governments.
The ruling during the Obama administration furthered provisions that President Clinton had initiated in an executive order. Backers said the measures were aimed at “affirmatively furthering fair housing.”
Biden issued on Jan. 26 a memorandum titled, “Redressing Our Nation’s and the Federal Government’s History of Discriminatory Housing Practices and Policies.” The memo has the force of law and includes language that echoes Atlanta’s initiative:
- “During the 20th century, Federal, State, and local governments systematically implemented racially discriminatory housing policies that contributed to segregated neighborhoods and inhibited equal opportunity and the chance to build wealth for Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American families, and other underserved communities. … This is not only a mandate to refrain from discrimination but a mandate to take actions that undo historic patterns of segregation and other types of discrimination and that afford access to long-denied opportunities.”