Getting affordable housing right – a beige paper*
By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, Georgia Tech professor of practice and former Atlanta planning commissioner
Need: A place to call home for all of Atlanta’s people
Purpose: Understanding what it takes to fulfill that need
* Beige, because this paper is more suggestive than authoritative, more “of color,” inviting comment, not a “white” paper, thus soft-pedaling expertise.
Over the last few years, city politicians and other leaders have increasingly prioritized the issue of housing affordability and committed themselves to do something about it. The Atlanta Regional Commission has also adopted regional housing affordability as a frontline priority. Meanwhile, housing costs continue to rise, and the gap between those who have affordable, safe housing and those who don’t continues to widen. In current times, fraught with the wake-up calls of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, the city faces the realities and consequences of the long-standing injustices of discrimination that have deprived Black, brown, and poor people of fair access to mainstream society.
Over the last few months, the former city administration, with good intentions, proposed that zoning modifications would fix the problem. That proposal was built on false assumptions and so was flawed in substance and in form. The City Council wisely filed it away at their meeting on Dec. 6, 2021.
Housing affordability, however, persists as an urgent problem. The new mayor administration has pledged to take on the challenge as a top priority. The problem is complex, with many moving parts, all interacting with each other in ways difficult to predict. Yes, zoning and other public regulatory measures figure into the mix, but not by themselves.
As a person who has administered housing, planning, and development agencies, as well as taught the subject, I put forward the following framework for consideration with the intent of sharing how the moving parts might align themselves to bring about changes. I aim the effort toward the goal of providing safe, stable housing for everyone. Housing first.
Often left out in describing the housing affordability crisis, however, with its focus on the individual habitation, is the physical, social, and cultural contexts where houses sit: the neighborhood. Here is the collection of houses whose conditions, qualities, and trends have everything to do with costs, affordability, accessibility, and stability. From this broader perspective, then, the entwined social values of identity, cohesion, and togetherness are important considerations beyond the individual residence.
The discussion below identifies the resources and processes in play necessary for affordable housing to be delivered, together with ideas to consider for acting on the crisis.
To begin with, Atlanta is a city that continues to attract growing investment in development of all sorts, thus a city with resources that many others would die for. City policies and practices in the recent past, however, have failed to seize the opportunities these conditions afford. Heady with growth as their primary metric, city leaders have not drawn a balance between investment that excites the well-off few and the needs of the many, especially those whose deprivations are most acute. Like in other cities, these rupturing disparities correlate with malaise, distrust, civil distress, unrest, and violent crime. [Sidebar, heard on the street: “Hey, if they can get away with it, why not me? I’m hungry.”]
Establish an equitable exchange ethos in the public sector. Link entitlements – such as zoning or other regulatory authority – and resources – such as tax or bond incentives – to support development of affordable housing. (A faint effort to establish such a policy showed up in the Gulch project, maybe a start, yet whatever trade-offs emerged didn’t reach beyond the level of lip service).
Yes, maybe asserting a better balance in the use of the city’s authority slows down investment frenzy; but might not a slowdown in favor of meeting unmet human need be a good thing?
All Hands on Deck
To meet the challenge, if it is truly a priority among city leaders, a start would be to bring together all of the resources and processes that bear on the problem. The people, the land, and the money embody the resources it will take. The rules, the tools, and the techniques embody the processes necessary to implement effective strategies. Think of these as two interacting triads that in turn interact with each other. The adjacent diagram portrays these relationships.
People, Land, and Money: The Resources
Atlanta should benefit from the range and commitment of affordable housing-focused organizations and individuals already in place, some actively building it. These People state that they share the mission to make housing more affordable, accessible, and attainable. They include, with more detail on their makeup further on:
- Community development corporations from neighborhood to city-wide.
- Housing advocacy organizations.
- Public agencies.
Private sector developers
The shared scope of their work is to try to meet the shelter needs of the neediest, from the homeless to severely and moderately cost-burdened households. They are doing good work, yet the goals of affordability continue to be elusive. Collectively, they embody the types of resources necessary to create comprehensive and unified strategies that can be effective. But there’s never enough: not enough land, not enough money, and not enough collaboration. There’s the rub: How can we get enough? How to pool their knowledge, skills, and resources to augment the resources necessary to get enough to implement a coordinated strategy?
The umbrella organization House ATL took shape through the Regional Housing Forum, and its efforts need to take on better and more targeted strategies aimed at action. For example:
- Among the many agencies and private interests competing for newly available and any future federal resources, lobbying to bend their use toward the affordability purpose, with less priority on “sexier” projects.
- Likewise, lobbying state and city agencies to make sure that federal homeless and rent relief dollars directly benefit people and households in jeopardy and that the funds are renewed for as long as the need exists.
- Grouping action organizations as leaders and reality checkers to guide policy makers.
- Empowering and supporting public authorities to assert the equitable balance principle.
Yes, there are a lot of big players under the House ATL umbrella for whom other, possibly more self-serving, organizations have different ideas in mind. More specific action-oriented ideas follow
Perhaps most directly affecting housing affordability is the land, the underlying conditions and realities of where housing is to be built. Land cost, land location, land availability, and land quality offer impediments, yet opportunities, for delivering housing that people can afford. Typically, variability of land cost accounts for disparities of housing cost more than other factors. Now, private equity is flowing, some sight-unseen, into property acquisition all over the city, seemingly as a hedge diversifying less certain speculative assets. Under these circumstances, no neighborhood is safe from destabilization through cost escalation and the inevitable hike in predatory scams and property taxes, with lower income neighborhoods more vulnerable. Indeed, recent national trends are showing more and more investment is going into “undesirable” areas, according to a Globe Street report.
Without a serious and significant move to bring land under the control of public and non-profit entities, private equity will hamstring the goal of affordability and of neighborhood stability. The city’s existing policies properly underscore this need, aimed at conservation and rehabilitation of existing properties. So:
- Coordinate resources among public, non-profit, or faith-based entities to acquire and retain as many land and rehabilitation properties as possible, beginning now and going forward as resources become available.
- Convene all of the biggest public landholders – the city, Invest Atlanta, Atlanta Housing, Atlanta Public Schools, the BeltLine, and MARTA – to coordinate planning and programming for how the value of those holdings can underwrite affordability purposes. (They all have a direct interest in neighborhood stability and housing affordability to serve their missions).
- Bring together willing participants from faith communities to consider using their landholdings for housing purposes with provisions for needs-based ranges of affordability.
- The consensual aim should be to provide housing at price points that range from 30 percent of Area Median Income to market rate, with the highest priority given for families with the least income.
- Engage the tax collectors in Fulton and DeKalb counties to support the mission, better than current practice, using their access to in rem properties to serve the goal of public or non-profit ownership for affordable housing purposes through the Atlanta Land Trust and Atlanta-Fulton Land Bank.
- Explore various forms of ownership, like ground leases or deed restrictions, to assure lasting provisions for affordability.
- Explore how other significant landowners might come into the discussion, like county and state agencies.
- Plan for neighborhoods with better accessibility and infrastructure, for integration of retail, services, and amenities, like food, health and parks.
The assertion of the public will to guide housing development and rehabilitation, perhaps starting incrementally in areas that most lend themselves to this wholesale approach, could rearrange the housing landscape toward meeting needs first. Well-conceived pilot areas could both tease out obstacles or flaws, build support, and become a model for continuing on.
On a par with land as a factor that determines the capability and the effectiveness of affordable housing initiatives is, guess what, money.
As we’ve all seen in study after study, Atlanta is not alone in persistent and growing wealth inequality. The financial interests of the largest corporations and the several thousand richest individuals exert tremendous economic power that is adding to the ever-expanding wealth gap. Equally pervasive is the influence these forces exercise over key decision-makers, both in and out of elective office. For at least a generation, activists, elected and civic leaders, academics, and others have recognized that there is enough money in the national economy to achieve a fully housed, fed, healthy, educated, and stable America. It’s a question of how these resources are distributed, making necessary changes, and having the willpower to persist.
What can be done now to move effectively on bringing these resources to those who are committed to the cause, many already in the game? Beyond the lack of affordable and available land, the people dedicated to and active in the effort are further constrained from doing more and better for lack of dedicated and reliable funding. The doorways to these funds are many and profoundly complicated. Virtually no developer building affordable housing can go to a single source. Multiple sources are required to build the capital stack it takes to amass the equity necessary to proceed.
These sources, federal, state, local, private as well as philanthropic, each have their own rules, their own application process, and their own timelines. Virtually none is willing or able to make their commitments sustaining through the time cycle it actually takes to get a development from start to finish. Further, so paltry are the funds in relation to the need that competing for them is vigorous, a shame since the competitors are mostly trying to do the right thing. Finally, purely the amount of time it takes to get funding is huge, time that ought to be spent building instead of begging. Thus, the portals to funding must be coordinated.
On improving coordination and cooperation among funding sources, the good news, great news actually, is that the House ATL umbrella has supported the establishment of a “funders collective” managed by Enterprise Community Partners. This initiative responds to the insanity of disjointed current practices, what Renee Glover used to call “brain damage.” The kind of coordinative structure that Enterprise is putting together could be a model for how to deal with other aspects of the tough nut that must be cracked to deliver affordable housing, about which more below.
Recent COVID response funding from the federal and other levels of government provide models that can be built upon to establish streams of money aimed at moving toward a fair, just, and equitable society. The continuation of greater federal support is vital for this and equity-serving programs. This city, this region, must use the times and the front-paging of the debate to plan and work to assure whatever funds emerge do get allocated to meet the goal. Narrow the gap! Meet the needs of those most afflicted by our current inequitable distribution of resources.
Beyond lobbying for whatever spills out of federal coffers, affordable housing advocates should be and probably are exploring how others are dealing with funding, like for example:
- Pairing tax relief with affordability commitments.
- Ramping up real estate transfer taxes dedicated to the cause.
- Federal affordable housing block grants.
- Federal funding, maybe subsidy allowances to fund the gap.
- Inducing or requiring more from philanthropy.
- Establishing a nexus between risk and reward: funding to assure a fixed ROI for projects, thus taking out the risk factors that bedevil the private production (check New York state’s Mitchell-Lama program).
These might gain some ground in the thinking, if not yet the acting, in local and state legislatures
Rules, Tools, and Techniques – Processes
Like the resources triad, the process triad groups rules, tools, and techniques into an Interacting framework, where the three interact with each other continuously. These interactions may be unpredictable and seemingly random. And the triad as a whole may similarly interact unpredictably with the resources triad. For example, if new investment becomes available from Build Back Better for modest multifamily rehab, it may trigger the need for rules changes, like building codes that focus on life safety and fire safety without requiring some of the products and practices of new construction. Likewise, new techniques might include cost saving methods and products. Beyond that, opportunities for workforce skills development might arise. And, driven by the new money source, new players bringing new skillsets and new land options could show a way toward better meeting the affordability mandate. In short, the problems and opportunities are complicated, a good font for innovation.
There are and always will be rules. In the current discussion about housing development, there are rules that govern private sector investment and practice, and rules that govern public sector policy and action. Typically, the existing rules reflect values or political power as established over successive points in time and so may fall out-of-date. In the private sector, for example, the rules governing lenders’ investment decisions used to separate housing, retail, and office sectors. The industry has been slow in recognizing emerging market norms where mixed-use projects have become the vogue, thus the need to reshape the rules.
Correspondingly, in the public sector, many rules stand in the way of moving toward a more just society, as epitomized by the housing crisis. In the case of zoning as one example, there was a long period where separating uses was the norm. Like with lenders’ rules, the now-discredited notion that mixing uses was a bad thing has given way to promoting mixed use, walkable, denser centers as a more desirable goal. Over the last 25 or so years, the city has repeatedly amended its Comprehensive Development Plan, its zoning ordinance, and street design standards to permit and encourage these evolving models.
In a different but relevant way, the state’s rules governing landlord-tenant relations overwhelmingly favor landlords, running contrary to the vision of housing for all, raising high barriers for people to maintain a stable place to live.
In the current case, the question is how to turn existing rules that stand in the way of progress on the housing affordability priority into the tools that will enable, encourage, and perhaps even mandate that progress. Changing the rules will be easier for some than for others. I emphasize here that changes that favor so-called “free market” strategies are doomed to fail. Indeed, that strategy continues to drive and exacerbate the inequalities we’re trying to address. Just as “free market” delusions in the larger economy with their promise of “trickle down” have failed, so too “trickle down housing” would never reach the affordability needs of even middle- class households.
Ideas: Rules to Tools
The good news here is that the city, recovering from its recent zoning false start, has picked back up on the thorough examination of the zoning ordinance and related land development rules that it launched years ago. The team they engaged at that time, still in place, is expert in all aspects of the nexus between the Comprehensive Development Plan, land use law, including zoning, and the many aspects of what it takes to move toward building livable communities. Their process is and has been for years one that listens first, that engages with neighborhoods of all types, incomes, and ethnicities and that integrates with private sector practices. But now with a new administration, the city has a fresh start, already underway, where considerations for meeting the affordable housing challenge is front and center.
On the other side of the coin, however, the bad news is that the laws that perpetuate landlord-tenant and other discriminatory laws need updating at the state level, not a promising prospect in current times.
Developing and engaging the tools that can address the problem, then, becomes a high priority. Some tools, as above, derive from changing the rules to achieve or even mandate better practices. In current times, rules like those governing land planning and development have been discriminatory, inequitable, and exclusionary. These can and must be transformed into just and fair mandates. Other tools derive from changing technologies and methods, like housing types on the one hand and on the other tenancy types, both with their own hurdles.
Housing types and sizes
As suggested earlier, the needs for shelter run the gamut from homeless to cost burdened people. As with those committed to permanent housing affordability, Atlanta has struggled to provide for homeless people who have the greatest shelter needs, relying on uncertain funding sources to provide a modicum of support. Again, people responding to this challenge are doing good work, constrained mainly by lack of resources and in a culture of societal stigma.
New types of shelter, beyond for homeless people, offer the opportunity to offer new housing models. Demographic shifts over the last couple of decades have brought forth new family forms, which most policy has lagged in recognizing. The old norm of married couples with children is still pegged as a baseline, when that no longer describes current and evolving life- styles.
Similarly, keeping in mind that shelter types combine to form neighborhoods, revisiting how different types come together opens the door for varying land use patterns. Some of these forms may stray far from the “norms” that most people have come to accept as “standard.” Indeed, those norms have so dominated the cultural landscape as to obstruct the desirability of new possibilities. What should be the progression to meet the needs from the street to a house, to a community?
In the same way that social support services organize themselves into a “continuum of care” framework, so perhaps might physical shelter arrange itself as a “continuum of housing types.” Along such a spectrum, one might find tents, pods, containers, tiny houses, RVs, trailers, manufactured housing, modular units, on to more conventional forms. Square footages could range from as little as 300 square feet on up. Some of these might frame themselves with the ability to grow as resources or family make-up might require. Along this spectrum are opportunities for experimental innovation, including structural, energy, and sanitary systems possibilities. Broadening the range of housing types and sizes might well redefine neighborhoods’ structures, and priorities, hopefully all fostering community identity and togetherness in old and new ways.
Here arises the fundamental question: Is housing a right? Should it be a right? Under current law and practice, the answer to the first question is “No.” As the fractures in society expose its injustices with growing social upheaval, much over this very issue, maybe the answer to the second question should be “Yes.” As noted earlier, moves in that direction are subject to governmental policy, authority, and action.
Interacting with housing types and sizes, here again is a spectrum of tenancy types. Squatting may simply mean finding shelter without permission, like in tents or vacant buildings. Or in pop-up shelters provided by Mad Housers, (which had its roots in 1987 with Georgia Tech architecture students). In Atlanta and other cities in the throes of the Great Recession and its aftermath, Occupy movements worked to provide support for this form of tenancy and still do. The Housing Justice League, a strong and unflinching advocate, grew out of Atlanta’s movement.
For people with greater means, renting is the most common form of tenancy, basically an agreement between landlord and tenant, whose forms and practices are many and variable. In Georgia, as mentioned above, state laws vastly favor the landlord over the tenant, often leaving the tenant with no viable recourse beyond appealing to the landlord. We have and regrettably will continue to have eviction upheavals as conditions in the larger economy produce havoc for people of limited means. Here again, we have ranks of people working to ease and alleviate these recurrent crises, but there is not enough to move people into more stable shelter.
At the same time, however, there is a range of landlord types. These range from mom and pop small-scale operations, Airbnb operators, on up the line to powerful corporations with thousands of units under lease nationwide. Rules should recognize this range, more directive reforms for the biggies, careful review of regulations for to mitigate disruptions endemic in Airbnb operations, but more forbearance for the mom-and-pops, recognizing their more symbiotic relationships and usually better acknowledgement of their mutual needs with their tenants’ needs.
Moving into ownership models of tenancy, the issues related to affordability become less acute, though no less weighted to the advantage of the range of lending institutions that control access to capital and lending practices. Here, the range runs from condominiums, cooperatives, cohousing, and fee simple ownership. Most people who are experiencing the shelter crisis most acutely do not have access to ownership options for lack of means. This reality underscores the slippage that is occurring in using ownership equity as a key building block of wealth development, which has become a diminishing option. Presently, Black ownership is falling faster than white ownership, but both are falling. To be sure, by normative standards, there are households in the ownership realm that are cost-burdened, but these generally have more options and greater access to tools that can help them.
Finally, the third sphere in the rules, tools, techniques, the how-to-get-it-done triad, what are techniques that may move the ball forward? Here the processes of approval and implementation include politics, technical obstacles, and experimentation, all aimed at both affordable habitations and compatible and complementary neighborhood environments. As suggested earlier, if the goal is to improve the lot of those most victimized by the lack of suitable shelter, then ‘those people” and their experiences need to be at the table. Here lies both the range and depths of lived experience that can produce a sounding board to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. An inclusive vision of how it could be, then, emerges, guides the information necessary to test it, leading to actions taken incrementally to confirm or adjust the direction. As mentioned earlier, Atlanta is fortunate in having so many organizations doing good work across the spectrum from homeless to cost-burdened, thus strengths to build on.
Going back to the beginning, people actively engaged in dealing with these complicated issues might create structures in the way that Enterprise is doing to address the barriers to capital. Such structures might foreground the capabilities and strengths already in evidence while at the same time maintaining enough overlap to knit them together for the common cause.
Thus, community development corporations at both the neighborhood and the wider scale could find collaborations that engage their experiences and skillsets for the benefit of all. Perhaps organizations like the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, the Atlanta Land Trust, and Habitat for Humanity might be conveners, with representation of all the others, spanning Purpose Built, FCS, Civitas, Urban Oasis, Quest, and many others.
These front line organizations are closest to communities in need, and a way to develop and prioritize their programs could be to get all to submit:
- Their current mission/status papers, stating their achievements, goals, aspirations for the coming year(s).
- Identifying and quantifying what it would take to do more.
- Coordinate through Invest Atlanta, or ANDP, or Enterprise, or ARC or whatever entity has the trust and the resources to undertake this coordination.
- The result could be budgeting for each identifying sources for each: a big administrative job.
Similarly, as is already happening to some extent, aiming to alleviate the ravages of homelessness and evictions, Partners for Home, the Housing Justice League, Georgia Stand-Up, the Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement (ARCHI) and others could coordinate the advocacy activities and action proposals across a broader spectrum, reaching for the next steps up the ladder toward stable shelter.
Public agencies could do the same, with a more coordinated focus and an action agenda. As mentioned above, coordinated land ownership and planning would be a top priority. Beyond that these might include Invest Atlanta, Atlanta Housing, city agencies, Atlanta Public Schools, and MARTA as co-conveners with support from ARC and the Fed. This would be a prime place, for example, to screen through the needs for changes in land development regulation, resource prioritization and enhancement. Here too the school board could play a critical role in shaping priorities for affordability in school cluster areas, bringing their significant land holdings to bear and establishing greater modes of collaboration with the city. Perhaps, who knows, with the city’s new administration, old divides might begin to heal. Sorting out who owns which lands and reshaping Tax Allocation District financing policy and practice show great opportunities for collaboration for mutual benefit.
Foundations that care about this mission would do well to convene, perhaps under the umbrella of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, whose CEO has a strong background in housing and community development practice, including United Way and others. Focus on philanthropy could lead to coordinated longer term funding commitments that could establish a baseline of support associated with non-profits’ budgeting. perhaps linked to the funders’ collective structure already in place at Enterprise Community Partners.
Finally, and probably the most logical convener for engaging these issues in the private sector, might include the Integral Group, Columbia Ventures, Civitas, and Star-C, all with strong records of performance in delivering below market rate housing. These could join with the Urban Land Institute’s Livable Communities Council, which is already committing significant resources and energy to the cause. Here, the skillsets that are already the hallmark of the development industry could prove invaluable to all others that for the most part operate at a smaller scale yet with a more focused commitment to address affordability as a purpose and a goal.
Structuring overlaps among these different roles might assure progress aimed at the underlying and overarching purpose: get everyone a home in a viable neighborhood.
To sum up: Build on strengths! Across the sectors identified above, Atlanta has a lot going for it. Many of these entities are already moving in positive directions. I’ve sought to identify obstacles to doing better and some ideas on who and how to do so; they’re based on experiences, observations and research, which means open to question and suggestions by others. That would be a good thing, and hopefully precipitate concrete progress.
The city can overcome its housing affordability and adequacy crisis. It can break down persistent barriers and build diverse equitable and inclusive neighborhoods that honor differing community-held values. Of course, moving ahead is complicated; but the underlying obstacles are complicated already. Also, it will take time, years, to move toward acceptable housing for all. What I want to emphasize is that to do so requires a multi-pronged approach: Interactions among the people, land, and money that actually result in housing being built on the ground on the one hand, and on the other interactions among the rules, tools, and techniques that at the end of the day guide and frame that outcome. The new city administration, the quite new school board administration, promising signals from Atlanta Housing, and the new emphases coming out of the Community Foundation all show great promise in these otherwise tormenting times.