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Seeking a common vision – an Atlanta region for all

Regional Housing Forum Atlanta Regional Housing Forum: (left to right): Bill Bolling as moderator; Raphael Bostic, Lisa Gordon and Egbert Perry (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

By Maria Saporta

These days, in nearly every community forum in Atlanta, someone mentions the city’s unfortunate top ranking for income inequality in the nation.

Most often, the studies cited are for the city of Atlanta, which has a population of less than 500,000 people in a region with about 5 million people.

unequal cities map

A map showing the most unequal cities in the country with Atlanta ranked No. 1 (Source: Bloomberg)

Bloomberg published a report last October with a headline: “Atlanta Ranks Worst in Income Inequality in the U.S.”

Again, that’s not a ranking touted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber or other economic development organizations.

But now income inequality has become a growing issue in the Atlanta region as poverty has migrated to the suburbs.

During the recent LINK trip to Pittsburgh, Atlanta attendees were impressed by the uniformity of messages that came from Pittsburgh leaders. “If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.” That phrase was repeated verbatim by nearly every leader who addressed the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LINK group.

unequal cities

The top five most unequal cities in the country (Source: Bloomberg)

For Pittsburgh, it was a call for equity – to make sure no group is left behind as the former steel city continues its transformation towards an innovation economy.

And the message hit home for regional Atlanta leaders as well.

Brookings published a recent study that analyzed economic growth in the nation’s top metro areas between 2007 and 2017.

Again, despite solid economic growth, incomes in metro Atlanta have languished. and the wide gulf of racial inequality has continued to plague the region.  Annual median earnings for whites hovered around $45,000 while median income for blacks stagnated around $30,000.

Income disparities

Income disparities between white and black in the Atlanta region (Source: Brookings)

The Annie E. Casey Foundation also just published a report – called “Changing the Odds” – that looked at the racial disparities within the city of Atlanta.

Again, the themes are familiar.

“Black Atlantans experience an unemployment rate that is nearly five times higher than for white city residents and have incomes that are one third what their white counterparts make,” according to the Changing the Odds report. “At the same time, an estimated 95 percent of the 10,000 new apartments built in the city between 2013 and 2016 are considered luxury, even though median household income increased by only 6 percent over that same period.”

The Atlanta Regional Housing Forum held a panel discussion on the topic of equity and housing affordability on June 5 with Raphael Bostic, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta; developer Egbert Perry; and Lisa Gordon, president and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity.

“For anyone to have a shot in life, you have to have access to education, a decent living environment and access to employment,” Perry said. “If you can address those three, income inequality isn’t the problem it is today.”

Perry went on to challenge the current thinking regarding the need for affordable housing.

“I would say we don’t have a housing affordability problem,” Perry said. “We have a community development problem.”

Regional Housing Forum

Atlanta Regional Housing Forum: (left to right): Bill Bolling as moderator; Raphael Bostic, Lisa Gordon and Egbert Perry (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Bostic then weighed in on whether there was consensus in Atlanta on the issues of income inequality.

“The  success on a city level and a regional level is most likely when you have vision,” Bostic said. “My sense is that Atlanta has not really had that. There has not been a North star… where everyone embraces that vision.”

Bostic said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has focused on the issue of affordable housing. “The more than affordable housing becomes a crisis, it will be easier to come up with a solution,” Bostic said. “This may be an opportunity to coalesce some people.”

But it’s not just a city issue. It’s a regional issue.

“There are a number of organizations in the city that need to get the message,” Perry said. “The message has to be simple. It ought to be something everyone can embrace – the business community, the civic community and neighborhood-centric organizations. That simple statement should say what are we going to strive for.”

Perry said Atlanta’s messaging in the 1960s was “A city too busy to hate.”

Regional Housing Forum

Atlanta Federal Reserve President Raphael Bostic addresses the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum at the Gathering Spot (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Now Perry said we need another simple message for the region – one that encompasses the following idea. “We want to be a region where every person has access to quality education, housing and that we democratize access to economic opportunity,” Perry said.

During the Q&A portion of the Regional Housing Forum, Tom Cross asked the panel about the need for a regional message. “How do we get various governments in the Atlanta region to work together on a common vision?”

Both Perry and Bostic mentioned the Atlanta Regional Commission as a venue to launch and host the conversation.

“We have to work on good regional solutions,” Perry said. “We have to do that visioning.”

No matter what, the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta region need to move the needle in making our entire metro area more equitable and inclusive.

In short, we need to become a region for all.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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2 Comments

  1. David Edwards June 18, 2019 2:13 pm

    Thanks for this Maria. I attended the forum as well and I am not sure Egbert’s message was fully absorbed by the crowd. For those interested, I would encourage you to read his piece in the ULI’s Urbanland publication here:https://urbanland.uli.org/sustainability/a-policy-context-for-addressing-the-u-s-affordable-housing-crisis/
    The main take-away from both his talk and from his piece is that we face a community development crisis – not an affordable housing crisis – that takes the form of deeply distressed neighborhoods in south and west Atlanta. Our collective attention and investments should be on revitalizing those neighborhoods to eliminate the cycle of intergenerational poverty that those conditions promote. If at the end of this economic expansion – and be sure that it will end – all we can do is count the number of affordable housing units we have built, we will regret the opportunity we have missed to materially improve the life trajectories of the children in our most needy communities.Report

    Reply
  2. Brainstar8 June 18, 2019 4:56 pm

    Self-love is healthy (to an extent), and maybe it’s time for Atlanta to admit it might be too full of itself. Two pieces of perspective come to mind, re: income inequality. A recent Wall Street Journal headline announced that the South is falling behind, after many decades of the region leading the nation in consistently impressive economic growth.

    Again, the WSJ, whose editorial board does not seem especially fond of President Trump, pointed out in early 2017 that Congressman John Lewis’ district had among some of the poorest residents in ATL and perhaps in the country. I think I am recalling this correctly.They also dropped out of school at higher rates than other teens in Metro Atlanta. Another portion of Lewis’ district is, of course, very affluent and highly educated. Trump’s criticism of Lewis and his crime-ridden, poverty-stricken district had been a deep affront to many, but when liberal media and others charged Trump with lies, the WSJ was saying, not so fast. Statistically, Trump was correct.

    When ATL leaders gather in a back room to strategize future successes, extolling the City’s greatness, maybe they should say, not so fast. Yes, we hosted the Super Bowl, but we lost Amazon. And much worse, we lead the nation in the number of women with AIDs, most of them minorities.Report

    Reply

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