Pogo on ATL affordable housing: ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’

By David Pendered

Derrick Barker stumped the experts at Atlanta City Hall when he asked Wednesday what Atlanta can do to help him, as a residential developer, build homes that aren’t so expensive that most city residents can’t afford to live in them.

Derrick Barker delivers his remarks regarding Atlanta's proposed inclusionary zoning. Credit: Atlanta

Derrick Barker delivers his remarks regarding Atlanta’s proposed inclusionary zoning. Credit: Atlanta

Barker’s story captivated attention at the first public work session on a package of legislation. The legislation aims to increase the number of homes along the Atlanta BeltLine that are affordable to folks who don’t earn the salaries of computer programmers and other top wage earners.

Barker said he’s in the business of rehabbing decrepit homes and putting improved units back on the market. Barker said he has no choice but to charge top dollar for a rental or sales unit, given the market forces and city codes that shape his business.

One situation he cited involves the five quadruplex homes he said he owns in the West End area.

The city’s Office of Buildings is demanding that the three structures he has in process of redevelopment be restored as single family homes – unless he can document that they have been quadruplexes since at least 1954. Barker said he can’t provide the documentation.

“My parents weren’t alive in 1954,” he said, as a way of denoting the distance from now to the first year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first year as president.

Barker said his only option is to fix and sell each structure for $275,000 – well beyond the reach of most folks in the neighborhood.

affordable housing, West End

Investors are back in business in the West End. After the homes are upgraded they are priced higher than the historic ranges for the neighborhood. File/Credit: David Pendered

Barker indicated he doesn’t like the current condition and doesn’t see the housing market forces abating while Atlanta policymakers hobnob about how to keep rental rates below $2,200 a month for a two-bedroom unit in neighborhoods close to job centers

“This isn’t a situation where slowing down is an option,” Barker said. “We are moving people out of the city. That’s what I and my friends are doing. How can we be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?”

Barker’s remarks prior to his question are of note – for what he said and what he did not say.

Barker said from the podium that his grandmother and mother grew up in Kirkwood. He indicated he wanted to move to their neighborhood after being graduated from college.

However, Barker said, he said he couldn’t afford a home near his family even with a good job and a degree from Harvard University. Barker made passing reference to his Ivy League as a way of suggesting that it would be expected to open doors to residing in any neighborhood of his choice. That didn’t happen.

Barker didn’t mention that that he was a stand-out student in high school and in college. Harvard cites his prowess on the Crimson football team, his academic achievements at Westlake High School, and the athletic success of his father at Morehouse College and his grandfather at Prarie View A&M, in Texas.

Now, Barker is trying to divine a path toward equitable development in his family’s hometown of Atlanta.

Atlanta Councilman Andre Dickens, the lead sponsor of the legislation and convenor of Wednesday’s meeting, acknowledged the issue Barker brought to attention:

“I’m proud of you,” Dickens said. “We would like to work with you and others … to preserve the affordable housing we have, which isn’t going to be affordable tomorrow.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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