COVID-19 crisis spotlights importance of equitable transit-oriented development
By Sean Keenan
The coronavirus pandemic has forced Atlanta and other major cities to take a hard look at another daunting crisis: A mounting affordable housing shortage.
The public health emergency has prompted local scholars Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and Emory University to call for a rapid response by public officials that would ensure the already rampant problems of displacement aren’t exacerbated beyond control as people, struggling with lost or decreased incomes, are forced to re-evaluate where they can afford to live.
Historically, affordable housing units in Atlanta have been concentrated in communities lacking features like public transportation access, grocery stores and solid schools. The COVID-19 crisis has shone a glaring spotlight on the need to change that.
During a digital panel discussion hosted by advocacy group CityRootsATL on April 29, Georgia State University professor Deirdre Oakley said, “This has always been a problem, but I think COVID-19 has really illustrated the fact that many people who live in or near poverty in the city are essential workers. If they can’t [afford] to live close to where they work in the city, the might have to get jobs elsewhere, closer to where they live.”
In essence, first responders, grocery store workers, food service employees, teachers and others are often on the cusp of displacement and finding ways to create intersections between things like affordable housing, transportation, jobs and education is more crucial than ever.
Odetta MacLeish-White, executive director of the Transformation Alliance, said during the discussion that combating Atlanta’s overwhelming income inequality problems is top of the docket on the mission to bridge such gaps — and vice versa.
“If folks are not able to obtain economic mobility that might allow them to move from one level of housing to another, they will have to stay inside the housing stock that we need for folks who are earning less,” she said.
People who aren’t settled in transit and food deserts, the logic goes, are more liable to find upward economic mobility than those stuck in impoverished communities that lack important resources. That’s why finding ways to foster what Southface Institute senior project manager Alex Trachtenberg calls “equitable transit-oriented development” is vital, especially amid the global pandemic.
“This isn’t just about providing affordable housing and putting in more units,” he said during a May 1 webinar about developing without displacement. “It’s about providing what local communities need.”
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to increasing affordability and equity in communities. Atlanta’s north side, for instance, has a stronger need for lower-income housing, while Southside communities could benefit from better jobs, improved walkability and transit connectivity and even some more market-rate housing, Trachtenberg said.
“What we don’t want to do is concentrate poverty in areas that are already impoverished,” he said. “We want to have as much mixed-income development as possible.”
Once complete, the potentially $62 million transit-oriented development would comprise some 300 apartments, and about 100 of them would be priced as affordable at 80 percent of the area median income or lower.
The community is expected to provide needed new affordable units in an area that’s for years watched property values rise as luxury development abounds. The experts think creating more mixed-income complexes like the one at King Memorial can help alleviate Atlanta’s housing affordability crisis.
(Header image, via Smith Dalia/Invest Atlanta: The under-construction King Memorial MARTA station transit-oriented development.)