By Guest Columnist MIKE DOBBINS, a professor of the practice of planning at Georgia Tech’s College of Design and and a longtime advocate for housing affordability
The city is making constructive strides toward addressing its ever-growing affordable housing needs. Researchers are pretty much in agreement that a stable, safe, and affordable home provides the fundamental and essential grounding for families to make their way into better education, improved health, higher incomes, and a quality of life that holds out hope.
The recent city elections highlighted the urgency for housing fairness, with the candidates mostly all pledging to do something about it. There seems to be a will for searching a way out of Atlanta’s greatest shame, its persistent poverty, dearth of hope, and widening wealth gap.
Recent moves by the Atlanta City Council, led by Councilmember Andre Dickens, beyond ongoing programs, mark the significant shift in priorities, and one hopes that momentum continues:
- Requiring residential developments relying on municipal bond finance rates to include a percentage of affordable units;
- Amending the Beltline overlay district zone to require “inclusionary zoning,” that is, between 10 percent and 15 percent of new residential units in a development must be provided for families classified as eligible based on income – hopefully that new zoning provision will extend to the whole city;
- Reactivating a $40 million housing opportunity bond fund launched in the Shirley Franklin administration in support of producing affordable units – hopefully that amount will expand, with the discussion below suggesting a way how;
- Amending the R5 zoning district to allow garage conversions or accessory dwelling units (ADU), that is, small houses on the same lot as the primary house, to provide for more affordable options as well as a means to support the principal owner’s mortgage and other payments;
- Invest Atlanta, in addition to amping up its use of bond financing in support of affordability, has been purchasing land in areas under threat of gentrification and displacement;
- The Atlanta Housing Authority, with a new city administration, should be able to use its land holdings and considerable cash resources to step forward in building and leveraging affordability;
- The City for All Housing Coalition and the TransFormation Alliance, born out of the Regional Housing Forum and the Equitable Transit Oriented Development task force, have been working hard to educate and lobby hard in support of new Mayor Lance Bottom’s pledge of putting $1 billion to invest toward the vision;
- And the Atlanta BeltLine now seems to be taking its mandate seriously to produce 5,600 affordable units by 2030, acknowledging that it’s about 4,600 units short, now half way through its funding life.
Read on to understand the BeltLIne’s opportunity to begin to meet its goal.
The BeltLine’s prospects for being able to step up face two major hurdles: Land cost and money.
First, the hot market, partly caused by the BeltLine’s own relentless hype, drives up land costs and taxes, the rise of which is the BeltLine’s life blood through its BeltLine Tax Allocation District. The conflict of interest for the BeltLine is obvious: How can an agency that funds itself by pumping up property values and taxes deliver land at below market rates?
Second, the money, where could it come from? As it happens, by rearranging its priorities the Beltline could dedicate much more of its considerable resources toward achieving its goal. But this isn’t easy and would take two major moves, one related to its revenue stream and the other related to its streetcar priority.
On the first, the Atlanta BeltLine board and its boosters who do support the affordable housing imperative need to consider the negative impact on housing affordability caused by the agency’s TAD revenue stream. The shifts necessary to do this would call on the BeltLine to damp down its relentless, albeit brilliant, hype that portrays itself almost as an alternate city within the city. This picture, in fact, has contributed to the speculation that boosts property values.
Concurrent with muting its trumpets, the BeltLine might need to accept a more modest or more protracted flow of its tax revenue. For example, is it good, really, for the affected neighborhoods and the city to support the BeltLine’s disruptive drive to produce hyper densities next to settled single-family neighborhoods? Its activities have been shown to accelerate property and tax values with predictable, usually unwanted, and unnecessary neighborhood displacement impacts.
At the same time, should not the BeltLine redirect a major portion of its revenues toward acquiring properties as quickly and as deftly as it can, a tactic that Invest Atlanta has been utilizing for some time now in Westside neighborhoods? The result would allow the BeltLine to sell or gift land to affordable housing developers at rates where the affordability mandate could be met and hopefully strengthened.
And about the money, if the BeltLine were to redirect resources it has currently committed to streetcars, it could make a big dent in its obstacles to meeting its affordable housing mandate. The following lays out the case for such a transformation in purpose.
Overall, to date the BeltLine has expended about $600 million, most of it on the East side and most of it on real estate, parks, trails, and other amenities for the ever hotter East side that emerged after the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and fired up as the BeltLine came along 10 years later.
According to its websites, the BeltLine originally anticipated generating about $3 billion in TAD revenues over the 25-year life of the program, about half over by now. Partly due to the impact of the Great Recession, that projection was cut in 2014 to about $1.5 billion. The overall cost of the program, including affordable housing, parks and trails, and transit is estimated at $4.8 billion, thus a funding gap of about $3.3 billion.
The status of the BeltLine’s streetcar program further casts doubt on its viability. The great bulk of the BeltLine’s program cost was slated for building a two-track streetcar system, originally for the 22-mile loop that goes around, but not to, the city’s major concentrations of destinations. The BeltLine completed a Tier One environmental impact statement for that concept seven years ago, with the requirement to complete a Tier Two EIS, the schedule for which seems to be in limbo or may have been abandoned.
Beginning in about 2010, after significant investment in the loop idea, the BeltLine began to listen to those who had tried for years to point out that a transit system needs to get people to where they need to go. Absorbing that wisdom, the BeltLine conducted a whole new study, completed and adopted by the city council in 2015, that called for a 50-mile, two-track streetcar system, termed the Atlanta Streetcar System Plan (SSP). Touted as Atlanta’s plan for transit, however, it does not begin to serve the city as a whole. (see map that locates the scope of this plan in the context of the city boundaries)
The current priorities for the SSP call for about 16 miles of streetcar, grouped into four subsets: Eastside, Westside, Midtown and Downtown. Unlike the loop, this concept actually might allow some people to get from their origins to their destinations. The required environmental review for each of the four groups is underway, with end dates uncertain.
Current rules of thumb for the cost of urban streetcar systems run at about $100 million per mile. Using the rule of thumb cost estimate, the 16-mile phases would require about $1.6 billion, with the whole package costing about $5 billion. The BeltLine has been reluctant, or at least coy, about dealing with what the streetcar system might cost and how it might be funded since its $1.4 billion budget doesn’t come close to meeting its funding needs.
It is noteworthy that the streetcar has been unquestioned given from the very beginning. The BeltLine has given no consideration for a truly multimodal, citywide transit system, which now MARTA and hopefully the city’s new transportation plan should address. Any future planning must take into account the impacts of major shifts in travel technologies and behaviors, now well underway. And these studies should certainly review the viability, feasibility, desirability, serviceability, and capital and operating costs of the BeltLine’s clinging to streetcars as the city’s only transit option. The need for these studies is daily underscored by development investment and settlement patterns that overwhelmingly favor Downtown, Midtown, Buckhead, and increasingly the East side and airport areas, where transit needs are and will be highest.
Indeed, it has been reported that MARTA is planning a big boost in service to the high intensity corridor from its Arts Center Station through Midtown and Downtown to the Turner Field redevelopment area and the long under-served neighborhoods nearby. Reflecting basic transit planning principles and commonsense, MARTA will build a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that is certain to generate high ridership, provide real travel options, and reduce auto congestion. Its cost will be about $5 million per mile, or 1/20th of what a streetcar would cost.
The point of this discussion is to challenge whether hewing to its ever-dimming prospects for actually building and somehow operating streetcars is the best use of BeltLine resources. Instead, perhaps it’s time for the BeltLine and the rest of us to get real about the streetcar component of its program and redirect real money to meeting the real housing needs of thousands of Atlanta families.
If, for example, over its 12 remaining years the BeltLine were to commit just half of that $1.6 billion first phase streetcar program cost to housing, again using conventional rules of thumb to make rough approximations, the funds could build about 4,600 units, thus meeting at least one of the BeltLine’s stated goals. It could then join wholeheartedly into the challenge of housing all of Atlanta’s people and particularly those with limited means. Worthy of a celebration!
Note to readers: Mike Dobbins’ work at Georgia Tech focuses on urban design and planning. Dobbins previously served as Atlanta’s commissioner of the Department of Planning, Development, and Neighborhood Conservation.