How Do We Green without Gentrification?
By Rob Brawner, Executive Director of Atlanta BeltLine Partnership
Cities across our nation face a keen struggle when trying to deliver green space to their underserved communities. The sincere effort to provide equitable resources and benefits is counteracted by rising housing costs sparked by the higher demand to live in the areas surrounding new parks and green spaces.
In response, major cities like Atlanta are looking beyond the construction of parks and trails to consider the people and the neighborhoods they affect – and a national conversation is evolving around parks-related anti-displacement strategies (PRADS).
Prior to the pandemic, Alessandro Rigolon and Jon Christensen introduced PRADS in their Parks and Recreation article “Greening Without Gentrification,” which looked at major parks projects, including the Atlanta BeltLine, and noted:
“No one says, ‘we build parks, it’s not our job to worry about affordable housing anymore. It has become clear that it is everyone’s job to worry about ensuring that parks are part of equitable community development, so that the people who most need the benefits of parks are able to stay in their communities and enjoy those benefits.”
While there is no silver bullet to ensure equitable outcomes around green development, there is silver buckshot. Rigolon and Christensen identified six categories in which cities are implementing strategies to limit displacement around parks.
- For Renters: strategies that protect renters or provide them with services, especially renters in existing units
- For Homeowners: strategies to preserve or create homeownership among longtime, low-income residents
- For Businesses and Jobs: strategies to create or preserve jobs and small businesses for longtime, low-income residents
- For Private-Sector Housing Developers: strategies that require or incentivize developers to produce affordable housing units in new developments
- For Nonprofit and Public Housing Organizations: strategies to create permanently affordable housing, including units owned by nonprofits and public agencies
- For Public Park Funding Agencies: strategies wherein competitive funding for parks requires or incentivizes anti-displacement strategies
As the BeltLine and other parks contemplated in the ActivateATL 10-Year Master Plan are built out, these strategic focus areas can serve as a framework to organize collaborative efforts to green without gentrification. Atlanta compared favorably to other cities in the report, and additional progress has been made since it was released at the end of 2019.
Alignment among organizations focused on affordability and displacement mitigation has been bolstered this year with Mayor Dickens’ activation of the Affordable Housing Strike Force and the operationalization of HouseATL with full-time staff. These initiatives build on long-standing efforts by public, private, non-profit, community, and philanthropic organizations that are consistent with the PRADS framework, though they are too numerous to list here.
The Atlanta BeltLine organizations have multiple initiatives that could offer valuable learnings given the geographic focus around BeltLine parks and trails. They include:
- The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (ABP) offers Home Empowerment Workshops in partnership with Atlanta Legal Aid, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Grove Park Foundation, and many others to help both renters and homeowners reduce housing costs. In the past year, these workshops helped educate more than 400 residents about available resources, including one-on-one help to reduce their property tax bills.
- The Legacy Resident Retention Program, managed by ABP, covers property tax increases through 2030 and is a way for homeowners to preserve generational wealth. Participants have lived in their homes for an average of 22 years and have household incomes below 80% of the area median income.
- BeltLine development is spurring new jobs with the creation of 49,470 construction jobs as of 2020 and 23,300 full-time jobs as of 2019 around the BeltLine corridor.
- In support of businesses and jobs, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI) is fostering entrepreneurship and mitigating small business displacement. The BeltLine MarketPlace pilot program offers affordable commercial spaces for up to six small, local businesses with storefronts directly on the multi-use trail.
- The City of Atlanta began Inclusionary Zoning around the BeltLine in 2018 to ensure private-sector housing developers would have units that are affordable for residents within the income range of police, firefighters, teachers, government employees, and young professionals.
- ABI’s land acquisition strategy to create deeper and longer-term affordability in Atlanta BeltLine neighborhoods can be replicated by other non-profit and public housing organizations.
There are many opportunities to strengthen Atlanta’s implementation of PRADS, including capping property tax increases for low-income homeowners, expanding inclusionary zoning, and creating more permanently affordable housing through the Atlanta Land Trust and others, to name a few.
As we all work together to make Atlanta a more equitable city, the PRADS framework could help focus our collective efforts around the investments we are making in parks and greenspace to ensure the people who most need the benefits of parks are able to enjoy them.