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OPINION: With sacrifices, Atlanta can offset its staggering affordable housing shortage

Sean Keenan

By Sean Keenan

Since long before the COVID-19 pandemic hobbled the economy, Atlanta has wrangled with a housing affordability crisis that’s kept many of its residences out of reach for the city’s essential workers. That doesn’t have to be the case, but boosting the stock of accessible, affordable homes won’t come easy, and it won’t come quickly without drastic shifts in the way intown leaders address our abundant housing-related issues. 

Some of the sacrifices necessary for combating the crisis fall on the shoulders of property owners and landlords. Others are the responsibility of well-to-do Atlantans who might traditionally maintain a NIMBYist (Not In My Backyard) mentality. And then, of course, there’s the onus of the politicians equipped to overhaul the systems that have long separated lower-income people from safe, stable housing. 

Today, affordable housing is kept from fast-developing neighborhoods — or at least kept in short supply — in part because of racially charged stigmas associated with the perceptions of what “public housing” really is. Developers and landowners might say they worry about what low-income housing complexes could do their property values. Some might assert that poverty breeds crime or that increased density could spur traffic congestion. 

And in some cases, these assumptions are true. But succumbing to an increase in on-street parking, or welcoming a shift in the neighborhood’s racial makeup, or accepting that a development’s return on investment might not come at breakneck speed are crucial concessions if Atlanta really aims to embrace its “City too Busy to Hate” moniker and afford its teachers, first responders, grocery store clerks, construction workers and healthcare providers, among many others, a place to call home. 

One worthwhile effort underway — but still needing a spike in momentum — is to lower or remove the barriers that keep lower-income people from accessing housing. While eviction moratoriums at the local and federal levels have been seen as a godsend by affordable housing advocates, they merely delay the inevitable and pose new problems for renters down the line. 

Atticus LeBlanc, CEO of affordable housing-focused start-up PadSplit, told SaportaReport in an interview that property owners and landlords are liable to hike their standards for renters in the wake of the moratoriums by requiring higher credit scores for entry, forcing renters to sign longer-term leases, making people pay pricier security deposits and increasing income verifications. 

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council passed legislation that requires landlords to allow renters to buy cheap “rental security insurance” in lieu of a traditional security deposit. Additionally, the measure allows tenants to pay their security deposits in monthly increments, dropping a major hurdle to housing for people who might not have two or more months of rent ready to put down before moving in somewhere. 

“Rental deposits are probably the most well-known barrier,” LeBlanc said, “but the others deserve attention, too.” It’s unclear, though, whether there’s an appetite for more municipal legislation that could curb some of those barriers, such as the credit check or income verifications. Better, perhaps, is finding ways to grow the supply of affordable housing in town. “It all comes down to supply and demand,” LeBlanc added. 

Before taking office, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms committed to producing 20,000 new affordable units by 2026. LeBlanc said the square-footage to do just that exists; it’s just a matter of whether property owners are willing to convert market-rate units into places priced for people earning less than the area median income. “You could do just that with 1.4 percent of the existing residential square footage in the city, and that doesn’t cost a dime,” he said. 

LeBlanc said he thinks his company, which helps people chunk up single-family homes and then manages them as rental properties, has the potential to produce between 10,000 and 15,000 affordable rentals in the next two years, assuming property owners — and their neighbors — are receptive to the business model. 

The average FICO credit score of a PadSplit tenant is roughly 460, LeBlanc said, and his team is moving in 50 people each week at present. So, it wouldn’t hurt if more companies adopted the system and took it more mainstream. 

Then again, PadSplit and companies like it can’t tackle the city’s mounting housing crisis all on their own; we need substantially more help — financial or otherwise — from the government at all levels.

Atlanta Housing CEO Eugene Jones said in his forthcoming book “Housing Humans” that “affordable housing has never gotten the attention it deserves from either political party leaders.” He’s right, and his demand for major reform lights a fire beneath the feet of those elected officials.

Public officials in metro Atlanta have long afforded hefty tax incentives to private developers who promise to squeeze handfuls of “affordable” housing into market-rate and luxury residential projects. In just the last few weeks, Fulton County’s development authority has green-lit millions of dollars in tax breaks to private developers who propose projects with scant affordable options — and right after the Atlanta City Council asked the agency not to do just that. 

“When you see these really big problems that are difficult to solve, you just need to blow it up,” LeBlanc said of the systems that reward private developers with public help they probably don’t even need. “Don’t be afraid to just do that sometimes. There are a lot of cases where you’re better off just going back to the drawing board.”

Maybe that means upping the number of affordable housing units that must be provided in order for a developer to secure public help. Maybe it also means lowering the price points that constitute “affordability.” And perhaps the city could overhaul its zoning code to allow for further densification. 

But even these reforms won’t stamp out the issues that threaten countless Atlantans and Americans with displacement. Accomplishing that also demands a major influx in cash from the upper echelons of government, including further stimulus funding from the Feds and more money for eviction prevention and relief from Washington and, ideally, the statehouse. These remedies, though, aren’t matters to hold your breath on; public and private leaders need to take action today.

(Header image, via PadSplit: A communal space in a PadSplit property.)

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Atlanta Resident October 11, 2020 3:05 am

    Rather than trying to introduce rooming houses back into viable neighborhoods (something many inner city neighborhoods
    worked to get rid of) how about more residential building in basically vacant Cary Park or repairing all the abandoned vacant
    housing on Jos E Lowry or further out on Hollowell. Pad Split only encourages mass buy ups of single family homes by investors;
    I prefer more individual home ownership because it tends to create community stability, lessens crime & allows owners to build wealth
    by creating equity.Report

    Reply
    1. Avatar
      Atticus LeBlanc October 11, 2020 9:10 am

      @Atlanta resident, We also support homeownership, and we help empower those owners to afford their mortgages and build wealth by providing a reliable option to rent out rooms to vetted residents inside their homes, thereby giving opportunities to the 40% of Atlanta residents that don’t yet earn enough income to purchase homes. But if we can help them build savings and income with affordable rooms, they can become homeowners as well. I’m grateful to have already seen that happen with several PadSplit members.Report

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Tim October 12, 2020 8:37 am

    Part of the problem, or challenge if you will, is that there are major players that require lower priced rentals to have the same fixtures and finishes as market priced rentals. This discourages increased affordability, and decreases landlord returns. There is no reason that I have seen expressed, that lower priced housing cannot also be more spartan and utilitarian…rather it just needs to be clean and safe.Report

    Reply

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