Questions on housing and more at Westside summit with mayor

By Maggie Lee

It was a big crowd for 7:15 on a Friday morning — probably about 300 people eventually squeezed their way into the meeting room. That shows the hunger of the west side’s most committed partisans to hear what Atlanta’s still-new mayor would say about their neighborhoods and its struggles.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the Westside Future Fund's Transform Westside Summit on Friday morning. Credit: Maria Saporta

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the Westside Future Fund’s Transform Westside Summit on Friday morning. Credit: Maria Saporta

The west side in this context means English Avenue, Vine City, Atlanta University Center and Ashview Heights.

But anxieties are afoot in parts. Parts of it have been bypassed by prosperity for years, beset with ills like slumlords and drug-dealing. Some parts are also now beset by gentrification or fears of it. And then there are the persistent problems that come with low incomes, with not having any financial cushion in case of emergency.

Westside resident Kelly Brown said she’d like to see more emphasis on transitional housing. She said that through Raising Expectations, a nonprofit that works with kids in crises, she was made aware of a homeless mother of eight. Brown begged for help keeping such families off the street.

“Right now, as of today, we still don’t know what her outcome will be, so just know this transitional housing is very important, people are sleeping outside and people are giving up,” Brown told the room toward the beginning of the meeting, during a public comment period.

The event was one of the regular summits of the Westside Future Fund, a big-league nonprofit that aims to help the west side revitalize and grow, via mixed-income communities and programs to boost residents’ safety, career prospects and health.

For the big picture, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms offered her administration’s vision statement, which starts with “One Atlanta, an affordable, resilient, equitable Atlanta.”  She also said that since January, there’s been about $30 to $40 million in public money spent on affordable housing, on the way to her campaign trail pledge of $500 million, to be matched by private money. But most of the morning was spent on Q and A rather than prepared remarks.

Judging by the questions, concerns from the community include high water rates and water conservation, lack of access to good grocery stores and fresh vegetables, keeping legacy homeowners in their gentrifying neighborhoods, arrests of children for relatively minor infractions, employment for folks exiting prison, health care, flooding,  and homeless youth.

Standing room only at the Westside Future Fund's Transform Westside Summit on Friday morning for an address by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Credit: Maria Saporta

Standing room only in a meeting room at The Gathering Spot. Credit: Maria Saporta

In other words, a list of things that aren’t simple.

For some of those concerns, six months into office, Bottoms has yet to outline her own solutions. Though on others she has; or she has inherited policies from the last administration or from her time as an Atlanta City Council member.

Earlier this year, for example, she said the city’s now helping certain men who are getting out of prison into certification for jobs at the watershed department.

And on Friday morning, she said that she’s looking at opening a second At-Promise Center, a sort of community center with services like tutoring, clubs and therapy meant to keep young people from getting mixed up in crime.

And some of the other issues go under the heading of resiliency, for which the city has an office: that’s working on the likes of putting good groceries within the reach of everyone in the city.

She was asked about the so-called Brock Built homes project, a big proposal that’s got some English Avenue residents very anxious about gentrification.

Bottoms said she hadn’t had an in-depth discussion with the developer about that project, but she committed to doing so.

“It’s about making sure that as we do these developments that we have a percentage set aside for affordable housing and workforce housing,” she said, and said she knew the developer would do the right thing.

Toward the end of the meeting, the area’s city councilman, Ivory Lee Young, Jr., said that the developer had committed to more below-market-rate apartments than are required by zoning rules.

“There will be an announcement before any approval of the project,” said Young.

The development company’s president, Steve Brock, couldn’t immediately be contacted for comment.

The Westside Future Fund and the city itself are already working together on things like buying and renovating multifamily housing that will be priced within the reach of people on low, modest or fixed incomes.

Rev. Leroy Wright’s First Thessalonians Missionary Baptist Church is across from the site of the future Cook Park. That’s one of the areas in the west side that’s liable to flooding so is being remodeled as a park that can absorb floods. He asked Bottoms how she would prioritize the watershed situation on Boone Boulevard and Cook Park.

She said that addressing flooding is top of mind.

But she also said something else about that watershed infrastructure that might be applicable to a lot of concerns, that problems take time to fix.

“I think that the most important thing is that we recognize this is not a problem that was not created overnight and the solution won’t be reached overnight,” she said.

But during her speech, there was one problem that got a solution. Or, perhaps a solution for nine.

At the end, Councilman Young stood up and said he’d been speaking to Jeff Riddle, a community developer, who has an apartment available in Vine City. Young he is going to use some of his own discretionary council budget to rent the unit for six months for that family of nine Brown talked about. And that Riddle would pay the utilities.

“I don’t know how you all felt about this, but it kind of rocked my soul,” Young said.

See the whole meeting via Westside Future Fund’s Facebook page.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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