Fulton Development Authority may have new interim chief, rejects tax breakA rendering of the Fairfield Residential apartment complex in Piedmont Heights that was rejected for a tax abatement by the Development Authority of Fulton County. The rendering appeared on the website of the Piedmont Heights Civic Association as part of its project review.
By John Ruch
The Development Authority of Fulton County has made a rare rejection of a tax break and is poised to hire an affordable housing developer as its interim executive director, as the authority tries to steer away from a financial scandal and toward a future of helping needier communities.
But scrutiny may continue at least in the short term. Sarah-Elizabeth Langford, that potential new interim chief, is perhaps best known as the former wife of once and maybe future Mayor Kasim Reed, a connection with potential political baggage. The board, which already has debated its hiring of lobbyists and a PR firm, is now spending $17,500 a month on a consultant to help with the leadership transition time.
Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris, a staunch DAFC critic, said time will tell how the new moves work out, but he generally believes reformers have “made tremendous progress… It took a long time, but it’s now a transparent agency and a transparent project.”
And Morris praised the DAFC’s new focus on the significance of aiding housing affordability. “I think it’s terrific if the Development Authority of Fulton County is going to focus on that,” he said.
A luxury rejection
The DAFC has the power to grant tax abatements to real estate developers by issuing tax-exempt bonds on their behalf. For years, the DAFC drew intense controversy for granting the breaks to every project that came before it, including those in hot real estate markets where no incentive appeared to be necessary. The practice continued despite direct opposition from the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Public Schools, among others. Scrutiny of the tax breaks exploded this year into revelations that DAFC leadership, particularly former board chair Bob Shaw, had personal financial incentives to rubber-stamp tax break deals, including through questionable “per diem” payments for work on each one.
Only once in anyone’s memory did the decades-old DAFC reject a tax break proposal, in 2019 for a luxury office tower in Buckhead, and that came amid rising public debate about the authority. It finally happened again Aug. 24, when DAFC said no to an abatement valued at around $4.5 million for a luxury apartment complex proposed by Fairfield Residential at 1944 Piedmont Circle in Piedmont Heights, within the Atlanta BeltLine zoning overlay area.
This time, the rejection came under a revamped board that includes a different chair, Michel “Marty” Turpeau, and, in a significant reform, representatives of the Atlanta and Fulton County public school systems, among other new members.
“Fairfield’s unsuccessful attempt to obtain a tax incentive clearly demonstrates that our board is fully engaged in the vetting process,” Turpeau said in an email. “I am excited about the future direction of DAFC, because … qualifications and backgrounds of our new board members are now joined with that of our more experienced members. The organization will grow stronger because of the strength gained through the diversity of opinions and ideas.”
He also pointed to the intended new direction of the DAFC, saying, “The full board is focused on stimulating economic development where it is needed throughout Fulton County.”
A new interim director
The DAFC has been without an executive director since Al Nash left in late 2020. Turpeau, the board chair, has served as interim executive director as well, a position that Fulton commissioners and others have criticized as a conflict of interest. Turpeau has moved to resign pending a replacement with another interim, which would be followed by a search for a permanent executive director early next year.
Langford is the sole finalist for the interim position, and if she gets it in a special called meeting scheduled for Sept. 3, she also could qualify for consideration for the permanent job, Turpeau said.
Langford declined to answer questions, saying she had been asked to defer to Turpeau for comments pending the Sept. 3 vote. But in a DAFC press release, she said, “Throughout my career, I’ve focused on economic development as a means to serve people and communities. I look forward to keeping Fulton County competitive with other markets as we also seek to bring equitable economic opportunities and benefits to our diverse communities across Fulton County.”
Langford in recent years worked in the affordable housing arena as president at Five Points Development and National Church Residences, a senior housing developer. A DAFC press release says that in those roles, “she has done it all from start to finish” and built consensus “to overcome community opposition and navigate tense political climates.”
“Ms. Langford’s understanding of housing development as well as the importance of working with community stakeholders is seen as an asset by the board,” said Turpeau. “The region is experiencing a shortage of affordable/workforce housing that could have a negative impact on our workforce, which in turn could affect our ability to continue to attract needed jobs to our communities.”
Beyond housing development, Langford has an eclectic background that includes a law degree from Howard University and a stint as a finalist in the 2005 Miss USA pageant. She also serves on the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.
She comes from a political family. Her late father, Arthur Langford Jr., was a state senator and Atlanta City Council member, and her mother is Susan Pease Langford, a former city attorney who, as it happens, now practices as a counsel on bond transactions.
From around 2014 to 2020, Sarah-Elizabeth Langford was married to Reed and she has a daughter with him. Reed was mayor when they married and he is running for the office again this year. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that, while Reed was mayor, Langford caused a collision while driving a City-owned SUV that, as a non-employee, she was not authorized to use.
Reed’s former administration has been undergoing a lengthy federal corruption investigation that has led to some charges and indictments. Reed himself has not been charged with any crime and has said he’s done nothing wrong. However, the AJC recently reported that he may be under investigation for possible campaign fund spending on personal items for family members and others. Regardless, the scope of the investigation remains unclear, including which Reed associates might come under scrutiny or questioning.
Turpeau did not respond to questions regarding whether the DAFC board had discussed how the investigation might affect Langford’s work. Morris, the county commissioner, said he had no immediate worries of his own.
“As far as any concerns about someone close to Kasim Reed, I don’t know how close she is if she’s an ex. We’ll see how it goes,” said Morris. “I think the reforms we put in place for the development authority … are gonna be good to protect from any real craziness. So we’ll give her a chance. We’ll watch closely, as we would with anybody who takes that role.”
A new consultant
As for that $17,500-a-month consultant, it’s Leithead Consulting, which Turpeau says will “provide additional support” to DAFC during the onboarding of an executive director. “The board wants to set up the new interim executive director for success and provide any necessary resources needed to continue to move DAFC forward in a positive direction,” he said.
The consulting firm specializes in community improvement districts, which are areas where commercial property owners agree to tax themselves to pay for local improvements. But the firm also provides general business development services. Tad Leithead, the firm’s president, has served as board chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission, worked as an executive at such major real estate firms as Cousins Properties, and has served with several CIDs. He’s now executive director of the Lilburn CID.