By Sonam Vashi
Last October, a month before the mayoral election, then candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms pledged $1 billion toward affordable housing. Soon after, a group of stakeholders – researchers, housing developers, community advocates, city employees – quietly came together to try and come up with a plan.
That task force, HouseATL, is releasing its working recommendations, which include how to create and preserve 24,000 more affordable homes over the next eight years and, crucially, how to pay for it, clearing a potential pathway for the mayor’s billion-dollar commitment. HouseATL will present its full recommendations for feedback next Wednesday, Sept. 6 at the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum and to Mayor Bottoms soon after.
The 24,000 number, which would require 3,000 affordable homes annually over the next eight years, is one of the few concrete figures to come out regarding potential affordable housing plans in the city, outside of the BeltLine’s 5,600-unit promise.
It’s also a figure that’s trying to address not only the current deficit of housing affordable to those at very low incomes but also the continual loss – HouseATL says about 1,500 units annually – of Atlanta’s stock, as affordability requirements expire or infrastructure degrades.
“That’s what we like about this number,“ said Sarah Kirsch, executive director of Urban Land Institute Atlanta and key member of HouseATL. “It gets us roughly half of the loss [of affordable housing] and half of ticking away at the deficit.”
Details about the affordability and location of the 24,000 homes are yet to come (HouseATL is clear that the plan is still a work in progress) but Kirsch says that there will be a “blended approach” for Atlantans at varying income levels, with a focus on providing housing for Atlantans making less than half of the region’s median income (say, a household of four making about $33,000), about 30 percent of all households in the city.
Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and executive member of HouseATL, addressed perhaps the most difficult question – how do we pay for it? – saying the task force recommends a “braided” approach: money from the government, private resources, and philanthropists, a strategy aligned with the mayor’s commitment to raise $500 million each from the private and public sectors. HouseATL recommends creating a funders’ collective to coordinate and invest that money, issuing a $250 million public bond specifically for housing, and establishing a cabinet-level position in city government specifically for housing.
HouseATL officially launched in January, funded by a $50,000 grant from the Blank Foundation. The task force has had at least 100 active members from much of city’s main decision-makers on affordable housing: residents, city and state government agencies, advocacy groups, researchers, affordable housing providers, philanthropists, and even market-rate developers.
“This is a broad-based coalition of people who don’t always work together, which I think gives it a certain foundation that makes it different” Kirsch said.
They soon broke out into five working groups to coordinate affordability plans, build on existing work and research in other cities, and collect political will and consensus in Atlanta. Those working groups specifically focused on problems like community retention and displacement (especially for lower-income residents in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods), how to get private and public investment, affordable housing preservation, and how to focus on those making only 50% of the region’s median income.
Members of the task force enlisted the help of experts, other government agencies, and, last week, held a peer exchange in Seattle to learn how its government and community work together to create affordable housing.
Given its expensive reputation, Seattle might sound like an odd choice to learn from, but HouseATL member James Alexander, president of affordable housing developer Mercy Housing Southeast, said, “Our home prices are where Seattle’s were 15 years ago. There’s this kind of moment in Atlanta where we have to get ahead of the curve now so we don’t end up like Seattle.”
After presenting at the Regional Housing Forum on Wednesday, HouseATL will present its recommendations to the mayor. “We’re trying to structure this effort in such a way that she sees it as additive to her agenda,” Fernandez said.