Housing forum celebrates 30 years

By Sonam Vashi

The Atlanta Regional Housing Forum celebrated its 30th anniversary this morning with remarks from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, integrating discussions about the past, present, and future of housing in the city.

In her comments, the mayor reaffirmed her commitment to spending $1 billion on affordable housing during her term and reflected on her first year in office.

The December 2018 meeting of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum took place in St. Luke’s church sanctuary and included remarks from Mayor Bottoms. (Credit: Kelly Jordan)

“There are things that have happened out of our control that have […] made it difficult to focus on our agenda,” Mayor Bottoms said, “but affordable housing remains a priority.”

Mayor Bottoms said she had met with Governor-elect Brian Kemp early this morning, and that she told him how surprised she was by reactions she’s received at the State Capitol about housing issues. “They are very much aware of escalating prices and housing costs in our city,” she said. “There is recognition that’s it’s an economic piece, and a workforce piece as well. [….] The conversations are being heard. It’s important that we maximize those conversations.”

Before the mayor’s closing remarks, housing apostle and forum founder Bill Bolling, who has led the quarterly event for three decades, took the pulpit in the sanctuary of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and extolled the virtues of Atlanta’s affordable housing community like a Revival preacher. Surrounded by the church’s stained-glass windows, he called out housing leaders sitting in pews among the more than 100 audience members to answer questions and speak on what they hope to accomplish in the future.

During the prepared Q&A session, Bolling asked Terri Lee, who was appointed as Atlanta’s first-ever chief housing officer in October, about her top priorities moving forward.

“I cannot walk on water,” Lee joked, before saying that the City is interested in using existing public land and resources for affordable housing, coordinating efforts among public, private, and nonprofit agencies, and continuing to review the recommendations that the HouseATL housing affordability task force unveiled earlier this year.

“It is absolutely critical that we provide affordable, equitable access to anyone who wants to call Atlanta home,” Lee said.

Mayor Bottoms appointed Terri Lee to be Atlanta’s first-ever chief housing officer in October. (Credit: Maria Saporta)

Sarah Kirsch, the executive director of Urban Land Institute Atlanta and a HouseATL staff member, provided an update on the task force’s efforts. She said a funders’ collective—a public-private investment system—is kicking off next week, and working groups on anti-displacement initiatives and community engagement are also underway.

Bolling also led a panel with four “housing pioneers” that have been involved with affordable housing efforts in Atlanta for decades: Frank Alexander, an Emory University law professor and cofounder of the Center for Community Progress, which focuses on property revitalization; Hattie B. Dorsey, the founder and former president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, an affordable housing group; Bruce Gunter, the cofounder of Progressive Redevelopment, Inc (PRI), the largest nonprofit affordable housing developer in the state; and Mtamanika Youngblood, the board chair and past president of nonprofit Historic District Development Corporation, which preserves historic homes.

Alexander reflected on how Atlanta’s housing efforts have changed over time: In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the focus was on people experiencing homelessness and housing discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS—issues that have not yet been solved—whereas that focus today has broadened to include significantly more people amid rising income inequality.

Gunter reminisced about affordable housing battles like the 1990 Imperial Hotel protest, where activists broke into the vacant hotel to pressure then Mayor Maynard Jackson to address the fast-growing homelessness crisis in the city.

Alexander noted that Atlanta’s affordable housing community has always been pushing from the margins: “There has always been an element of intentionally troubling the waters, that we cannot accept things as they are.”

Like others who spoke at the event, Dorsey encouraged the new generation of affordable housing leaders. “The job is never over,” she said. “There’s still work to be done.”

Sonam is a freelance reporter in Atlanta who is contributing coverage of affordable housing for Saporta Report. Her reporting, which usually focuses on criminal justice, equity, and the South, has also appeared with CNN, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. Previously, she was a data reporter and a researcher at CNN. She is the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, and she grew up in Gwinnett County.

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