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Columns John Ruch

Candidate forum on housing affordability another example of what goes unsaid

A stock photo of apartment buildings. (Photo by Sigmund/Unsplash.)

By John Ruch

I’ll admit that I tuned in to a recent Georgia House candidate forum on housing affordability issues not so much to learn about solutions as to confirm why nothing ever really changes.

That’s no disrespect to the candidates in House Districts 59 and 62, two adjacent bacon strips running between College Park and Atlanta’s Downtown and Grant Park, who were smart and well intentioned in their May 5 match-up. They’re just handy examples of any metro race. As usual, most of the candidates knew little about the policies underlying this crucial issue, and the one who did runs a construction business. Thus, no one called out factors like greed, perverse incentives and government-subsidized classism.

“Affordable” was rarely — if ever — defined, which is part of the recipe for policies that tend to offer the most help to those who need it the least. The less a legislator knows, the more one can expect policies that feel good without doing much good — and that’s before the lobbyists get to them. And on this topic, real change means radical challenges to a status quo armed with the American Dream itself — the aspiration to buy a home, jack its value as much as possible while paying as few taxes as possible and make sure people you dislike can’t move next door.

The radical in the room for the May 5 virtual forum was the host: Neighbors for More Neighbors of Metro Atlanta, a chapter of California-based YIMBY Action, which stumps for increased housing supply, tenants’ rights, and an end to exclusionary (i.e., low-density) zoning.

The candidates were all Democrats, one of whom effectively will win office in the May 24 primary. From District 59, that included Phil Olaleye, head of the education nonprofit Next Generation Men & Women and president of Organized Neighbors of Summerhill; his opponent, former state rep. Toney Collins, did not appear. The District 62 candidates included Thomas Calloway, the construction business owner and East Point City Council member; Tanya Miller, a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor; and Josh Noblitt, a Methodist minister and licensed therapist.

The moderator hit them with various big ideas, like expanding the areas where higher-density housing is allowed, and providing tenants with tax breaks and lawyers if they go to court in a landlord dispute.

Calloway had by far the most policy positions on those and other topics. The other candidates frequently were left saying they needed to learn more, would conduct studies and promote citizen education, and generally deferred to his expertise.

Some of Calloway’s ideas were radical by Georgia standards: state funding for small-city affordability programs; more community land trusts, which are locally controlled nonprofits that oversee the development and keep the money local; and shifting federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from corporate developers who do short-term affordability to nonprofits that would make it permanent.

On other topics, he was more centrist, like streamlining the rent-escrow system to address landlord-tenant disputes. He opposed the expansion of “by right” zoning — where developers can build without special permission — and said zoning should match the international model building code. “There should not be extra and additional building codes that are layered on top of that,” he said. Yes, that sounds extremely boring, but it has radical potential, both in restricting higher density but also in allowing it. For example, in recent years, the General Assembly shot down ordinances in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs that restricted wood-frame apartments on safety grounds that doubled as a way to guarantee higher construction costs and thus higher rents.

Miller expressed some awareness of real estate speculation as destructive to neighborhoods and of the racist underpinnings of much metro zoning, which was intended to enforce segregation. But her solutions focused on homeowners — protections for legacy residents in areas of displacement, and expanded first-time buyer programs. Implicit was the assumption that renting is just a step on the ladder and ownership is the ideal.

Undiscussed by anyone is how homeownership, like college, is for many people an aspirational scam that puts them on the hook for debt, hidden costs galore and a dubious “investment” in a market whose idea of fun is blowing bubbles. However, Miller’s homeownership was rooted in a very real racial inequity in homeownership and related wealth.

After all, it is of course the American — and certainly the Atlanta — Way to assume unaffordability is just a sad side effect of people doing wonderful things, rather than a deliberate policy choice or heavily subsidized snobbery. Unquestioned in all of these discussions is the self-defeating tendency of any government supposedly setting out to solve affordability when it has every incentive otherwise because of its property tax funding.

Noblitt spoke to the tone of lawmaking in a way that may seem insubstantial but really does matter when it comes to using the bully pulpit — if anyone ever does feel like handing out more shaming and fewer paper awards to developers and landlords.

“I just feel like Georgia is very mean-spirited on a lot of these policies, especially when it comes to those who are most vulnerable,” said Noblitt, vowing that his decisions would be based on equity and the assumption that the rich will always be OK. He’s right about that, and equality rather than equity has been the downfall of many a housing policy.

Personal experience, or lack thereof, is another important policy-making factor. One of the most illuminating forum questions was about the candidates’ “housing story.”

Miller told how, as a single mom, she “scrimped and saved” to buy a small house in Decatur to take advantage of the school system, then moved into apartments before buying again in Grant Park. The tone was of a scrappy bootstrap story to emulate, rather than also an example of the obscenity of Georgia’s school quality hinging on hyperlocal property taxes and the community instability of people drifting in and out because of it.

Calloway and Noblitt both said they came to their neighborhoods because at the time they had high vacancy rates. In other words, they are among those waves of young professionals who “fix up” a neighborhood and soon are in the midst of affordability and displacement tensions.

Another interesting factoid: All of the candidates said they’ve never been landlords. And they’re running to represent many tenants. Calloway and Olaleye noted that areas like East Point and Summerhill have populations that are 65 to 70 percent renters.

As my colleague Maggie Lee reported earlier this year, homeowners are disproportionately represented in the General Assembly. Georgia’s homeownership rate is about 67 percent. But 86 percent of Georgia legislators own real estate, and 47 percent report owning two or more.

Diversifying a body whose members make around $15,000 a year is a tough proposition, but for a Democratic Party committed to all sorts of other identity politics, it’s notable how much of the affordable housing discussion is conducted by those who don’t need it and aren’t living it.

 

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