In forum on housing affordability, council president candidates reveal how they think and leadCity Council president candidates who participated in the Sept. 11 forum included, clockwise from upper left, Natalyn Archibong, Courtney English, Doug Shipman and Mike Russell. Candidate Sam Manuel did not participate.
The leading City Council president candidates gave some revelatory answers at a Sept. 11 forum focused on housing affordability. Revelatory not because they or Atlanta are likely to magically solve the nationally intractable affordability problem, but exactly because they’re not.
Granted, the next council prez — whose powers are mostly procedural — might collaborate with other leaders on a pioneering housing idea or two as a small puzzle piece. But the tough questions illuminated the candidates’ capacities for thinking about so-called wicked problems of sticky complexity. And the answers were valuable as a measure of the strategies, tactics and public engagement the candidates would bring to simpler issues and the shape of the council.
The forum, which also addressed transit issues, was part of the “What’s Your Plan?” series staged by a coalition of advocacy organizations. Joining in were Natalyn Archibong, the current District 5 City Council member; Courtney English, former Atlanta Board of Education chair and now an executive at a nonprofit that provides wrap-around services to apartment complex tenants; Mike Russell, a former U.S. Army officer; and Doug Shipman, former CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Another candidate, Sam Manuel, was invited, according to organizers, but did not participate.
The forum began by asking each candidate for their personal housing story.
Archibong recalled facing the “very, very scary” situation of divorcing with a young daughter and having to find housing unexpectedly. She said that “has always given me a sense of compassion and concern to [how] in a blink of an eye, housing can be at risk.”
English, who is newly married, said his family is having trouble buying a house: “It’s really, really hard to find a home in this city right now because of the missing middle, because of our affordable housing crisis.” And he knows it’s worse for lower incomes, with around 40% of Atlanta Public Schools families moving regularly “chasing affordable housing.”
Russell has first-hand recent knowledge of renting since he was an apartment tenant when he started his campaign. But he just bought a home in Grove Park, one of the more blighted but hopefully changing areas in the city.” “I want people to live as well as I do or better,” he said.
Shipman said he grew up in rural Arkansas in a family that had housing instability. “I remember hiding under the bed sometimes from those who were doing some tax collections,” he said.
In short, they all have empathy for the housing problem, but empathy is only a start. Atlanta and every other big city has a history of housing policies that often have done more to feel good than do good once reality stepped in with unintended consequences, cosmetic indifference, or underwhelming impacts that barely dented the armor of unaffordability.
All of the candidates were willing to look at some of the root causes and to propose some relatively radical ideas, from rent control to land trusts. But they showed variation in such approaches as top-down or bottom-up, charity or self-empowerment — sometimes within their own answers.
A fundamental challenge in housing affordability is defining “affordable” — and, even harder, redefining it. A major problem for subsidy programs is the use of “area median income” as a standard baked into policies by the federal government and trickling down to cities. AMI’s “affordable” standard is often a joke in actually needy communities because the “area” means the entire metro region, including wealthier suburbs. Many “affordable” projects are allowed to go as high as 120% of AMI. And the traditional method of including a minority of “affordable” units in a mostly market-rate or luxury project means that the overall development tends to push AMI higher faster, so the “affordable” bar moves higher, too.
Archibong said that Atlanta, not the metro area, should be the standard. She suggested “affordable” be defined by “life points,” like young people moving into the city, stability for working families, and seniors and legacy residents looking to stay.
Shipman said “affordability” metrics should also factor in the costs of transportation and child care in a given area. English agreed with that approach and said the basic standard is “I don’t want anyone paying more than 30% of their income on housing unless they choose to do that.” AMI might not be the right metric, he said, because “AMI is going to continue going up.”
Russell had a different approach based on the type of housing. “So my idea of affordable housing is housing people can own, not just to rent,” he said, adding that means middle-income housing, not incentivizing “McMansions and these soulless towers.” And ultimately, he said, that means finding ways to raise incomes.
Policy ideas galore
But the council president is not going to rewrite federal standards. And coming up with localized solutions can be tough because ever-increasing property values remain a driving motive for developers, homeowners and the City itself, if it wants tax money to pay for subsidy programs. Getting the system to solve problems it helps to create is an essential tangle in the Gordian knot of affordability.
English called for more action by the City itself on the supply side, noting the Housing Authority has not built affordable units in over a decade. “That is completely unacceptable,” he said. He called for incentives for developers to build transit-oriented and denser development in places in need, rather than today’s concentration in Buckhead and Midtown.
Archibong and Shipman both backed the idea of issuing a bond whose funds could be used to subsidize rents as well as mortgage down payments, with Archibong suggesting the bonds could be bought by “philanthropic and corporate partners in the city.” Shipman suggested the City and philanthropists could help with financing projects other than luxury ones favored by traditional lenders.
New York City’s rent control program is an “intriguing idea,” Archibong said, and so are inclusionary zoning policies that require a certain amount of affordable units in rezoned projects.
Shipman proposed expanded use of community land trusts, a model where a nonprofit owns land and sells shares in a development to residents or the community, removing a profit motive and stabilizing prices.
Shipman also called for more assistance for rehabbing existing buildings to keep rents down, and for providing incentives to small and single-job businesses to help raise incomes from the bottom up rather than just today’s trickle-down corporate incentives.
Russell said that subsidy programs should be temporary and should be focused on job skills and education, not properties, so that income will be increased and home ownership remains the goal. He called for expanding the model of Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit that started with the mixed-income, pedestrian-friendly remake of East Lake public housing in the 1990s.
Asked about support for a specific proposal by Councilmember Amir Farokhi to allow small apartment buildings in single-family areas near MARTA stations, English said yes; Russell and Shipman said no; and Archibong declined to say because it’s coming before the council. Shipman said the proposal needs more discussion.
Community input and leadership
Another stumbling block for many affordability policies is lack of political engagement and access for the folks they are supposed to help. Homeowners often dominate voting turnout and community associations. Developers are major contributors to political campaigns. There’s also a cultural dynamic of viewing renters as lower on a social hierarchy than homeowners, which ties into such policies as significant tax benefits subsidizing some homeownership. An essential question is who leaders will listen to and how.
While Russell was the most policy-focused on home ownership, he also was the most direct about including tenants in decision-making. “A lot of people feel locked out of the system, particularly renters,” he said of the zoning process. He is involved in a controversy in Buckhead over a luxury development where many neighbors are renters who don’t get official City notice and can’t be members of the local civic association, which he said is “not right.”
English said he’d have a proactive outreach, including citizen volunteers on committees and council meetings in the neighborhoods at least four times a year. “We’re going to bring government to you as opposed to relying or hoping somehow that you will come to us,” he said.
Archibong and Shipman focused on providing information to people seeking it. Archibong spoke of “old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor” information-sharing, while Shipman said he’d been advised to immediately “hire an infographics specialist.” Shipman later added in an email that he aims to avoid hierarchies when campaigning on housing issues: “I’ve been intentional during the campaign to talk about households and residents, not homeowners specifically.”
The engagement differences echoed in some of the candidates’ policy ideas on better aiding tenants fighting evictions.
Russell called for more European-style laws to give tenants more rights to begin with, because eviction time here is usually too late to prevent displacement.
Boasting his hands-on experience, English said he recently worked on raising a $10 million eviction relief fund in partnership with nonprofits and more than 400 landlords. “We also need to be aggressive about landlords who are bad actors,” he said.
Shipman and Archibong called for public-private team-ups with nonprofits and pro-bono lawyers. Archibong talked about engaging with judges to have “some discretion” about executive evictions and finding ways to “incentivize” major landlords to keep tenants.
The forum did not include questions about campaign donations from developers and homeowners, so I did, with Archibong, Russell and Shipman responding. Russell, an outsider candidate with the smallest war chest, said he doesn’t think he has any developer contributions and doesn’t expect to get any due to his policy ideas. Shipman said he would balance all interests and that similar concerns came when he led the fundraising for the Civil and Human Rights museum.
“When I led the National Center for Civil and Human Rights construction, many worried that the exhibitions and programs would favor corporate donors,” he said. “I was committed to the truth and asked tough questions in everything NCCHR did. The record shows that no donor received any favorable treatment. I led the center based on what was best for the center and the community.”
Archibong said she has a 20-year history of balancing interests, citing as a recent example her vote against a controversial public safety training center that is backed by corporate donors. “Unlike any other candidate, I know how to balance competing priorities while being ever mindful of the duty to serve the public good,” she said.
Appointing council committees is one of the president’s most influential jobs, and the Zoning Committee is one of the most significant on affordability policy. How would the candidates choose a zoning chair?
“Howard Shook loves zoning,” said Archibong, referring to the conservative-leaning Buckhead councilmember who has opposed high-density development there. She said he’d be a committee member and maybe the chair, as part of her measure of interest, expertise and geographic diversity.
Shipman said he wants someone with “very high emotional intelligence” because issues involving homes are so personal. Alluding to recent controversy over City proposals to alter residential zoning to increase affordability, he said that without good public engagement, “we have enormous amounts of backlash that can undercut very good ideas.”
Russell spoke of “character and merit,” while English wants someone focused on displacement, affordable housing and underserved communities. “And then I’m looking, above all else, for somebody who is ready to move with a sense of urgency,” English added. “For far too long, Atlanta has been a tale of two cities. … And I’m frankly tired of talking about it.”
So there you have it — a bunch of thoughts about housing affordability policies. When one of the four is leading the council, time will tell if what they think matters. But now you already know something about how they think. And that definitely will matter to Atlanta’s future.
Update: This column has been updated with comment from Archibong regarding campaign contributions.