By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Aug. 31, 2018
The City of Atlanta needs to invest $1 billion to add another 24,000 units of affordable housing within the next eight years, according to a well-represented task force that has been meeting since January.
The HouseATL Task Force, funded by a $50,000 grant from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and managed by the Atlanta office of the Urban Land Institute, will release its preliminary recommendations on Sept. 5 at the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.
The $1 billion goal dovetails with the campaign pledge Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made last fall after attending a session with mayoral candidates hosted by the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.
HouseATL’s findings were further reinforced in a peer exchange visit to Seattle Aug. 22-23 when a 40-member delegation saw how a city with a housing affordability crisis was trying to address the problem in coordinated and creative ways.
“We have a window of opportunity,” said Frank Fernandez, vice president of community development for the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. “We have to move really fast. We have to move now.”
Sarah Kirsch, executive director of ULI Atlanta, said the group “is a true broad-based coalition” of people who have not always worked closely together. And while great strategies have been proposed over the years, “they sit on the proverbial shelf,” she said.
HouseATL’s in-depth research showed Atlanta has tremendous need for more investment in affordable housing. “We learned that $1 billion is not a crazy number,” Kirsch said.
Bill Bolling, who has been facilitating the Housing Forum for three decades, said he has never seen the issue of Atlanta’s housing affordability viewed as high a community priority as it is today.
Plus, the myriad of nonprofits, foundations, businesses and government agencies that have participated in HouseATL’s monthly meetings and served on its working groups has brought leaders together with a new sense of urgency.
“No city has solved this issue,” Fernandez said. “We are trying to do something that is ambitious. We are trying to learn from other cities. We feel like we’re behind. It’s a heavy lift across the board. We are trying to keep everyone under the same tent.”
HouseATL plans to present its findings and recommendations to Mayor Bottoms in the near future with the hope she will embrace the effort and make it part of the city’s plans to provide affordable housing.
“We have been very intentional in working with the city,” said Fernandez, adding that several members of Bottoms’ team have been part of HouseATL. “We are hopeful that she will see our work as additive to helping her fill her equity vision for the city.”
HouseATL’s goals for $500 million in public resources and $500 million in private resources to be invested in 24,000 new and preserved affordable housing units over the next eight years are just part of the 23 recommendations being proposed.
“There are items in the recommendations that can be acted on tomorrow,” Kirsch said.
The recommendations include issuing a one-time $250 million bond for housing, providing short-term and emergency solutions for people facing eviction, and helping stem displacement by providing tax relief for existing residents living in areas where property values are increasing.
The Task Force also calls for the creation of a Funders’ Collective to provide a coordinated way for public, private and philanthropic entities to invest in affordable housing. And it recommends that Atlanta establish a cabinet-level position for someone to coordinate housing initiatives throughout city government.
Kirsch said that to meet its goal, the city and its partners would need to add about 3,000 affordable housing units a year. Another issue putting pressure on the housing market is a reduced supply of new homes.
For 25 years, metro Atlanta was adding between 60,000 and 65,000 housing units a year. Today it is about half that number despite a significant increase in population. The relationship between supply and demand means housing could become even less affordable in the region unless there is a concerted effort to address the issue.
That’s why HouseATL decided to visit Seattle, which has been working on a coordinated strategy for affordable housing for years.
“Our home prices in Atlanta are where Seattle’s were 15 years ago,” said James Alexander, president of Mercy Housing Southeast. “We have a moment in Atlanta to get ahead of the curve so we don’t end up like Seattle.”
Currently, Atlanta’s affordable housing incentives for developers last about 15 years. But HouseATL has found that many cities are seeking affordable incentives that would last 30 to 50 years. And the greatest need is for housing that serves people making 50 percent or less of the region’s Area Median Income. To provide that level of affordability over a longer period of time will require greater public investment.
In Seattle, voters have approved a special levy of property taxes to go towards housing affordability – a fund that generates about $27 million a year. The State of Washington also provides about $279 million in a Housing Trust Fund compared to Georgia’s annual Housing Trust Fund of about $3 million.
On the other hand, Kirsch said, Atlanta has a more robust private sector that has been open to investing more in affordable housing.
“It has to be intentional,” said Fernandez, adding that nonprofit developers like Mercy Housing, Quest and the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership need to build their capacity. It also is necessary to identify publicly-owned land where affordable housing could be developed, perhaps through the Atlanta Land Trust.
If Atlanta is able to add about 3,000 units a year, “we will stop the bleeding,” Fernandez said.
HouseATL’s next step will be to work on a plan to implement its recommendations – likely designating existing nonprofits and entities to lead particular initiatives.
Because the efforts will need to be coordinated in order to fulfill its goals, Fernandez said it is likely “HouseATL will continue in some form or fashion.”
Meanwhile, Alexander said he was inspired by the trip to Seattle with his colleagues from Atlanta.
“I left feeling very hopeful,” Alexander said. “Communities and cities can be very powerful in solving their own problems.”