EDITORIAL: Open Letter to Atlanta Council on 16-O-1163, in Opposition

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CDHR me(APN) ATLANTA — Matthew Charles Cardinale, CEO and News Editor of Atlanta Progressive News, issued the following Open Letter to the Atlanta City Council on April 24, 2016:

 

Dear Councilmembers,

 

I am writing in reference to 16-O-1163, an ordinance by Councilman Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large) that would (1) strip the Code of Ordinances of strong affordable housing goals that were adopted in 2001 (Code Section 54-1(b)); and would (2) weaken the definition of “affordable housing” in the City of Atlanta (Code Section 54-1(a)(1)).

 

This Ordinance is extremely troublesome for several reasons.

 

First, I want to say that Councilman Andre Dickens, in my opinion, has shown genuine interest in the issue of affordable housing and took tremendous leadership in championing legislation that I drafted, Affordable Housing Impact Statements, which was adopted in November 2015.  The purpose of that legislation was to keep track of the impact of our public policy decisions upon the City’s housing stock, in terms of the number of housing units added or subtracted at different income levels, or brackets of AMI.

 

One of the motivating factors behind that legislation, as many of you know, has been the City of Atlanta’s movement away from focusing its efforts–whether funding, incentives, requirements, or other policies–from the creation and rehabilitation of affordable housing at 0 to 30 percent AMI, towards, primarily, the production of affordable housing at higher and higher levels of AMI, as high as 80 percent AMI and even higher sometimes.

 

Today, Councilmembers, you are being presented with legislation that strikes at the heart and soul of this issue.  I believe we must draw a line in the sand here.

 

Do we erase from history the recommendations of the Gentrification Task Force, which said the City of Atlanta “should” require that one third of units in publicly subsidized new developments, be set aside for extremely low-income households?

 

These are the households with the greatest unmet housing needs and who are at the greatest risk of homelessness or of being displaced from the City of Atlanta.  These are the households who are facing heartache and anxiety and tears and high blood pressure from the coming first of the month, every single month!  These are the households who must be the prioritized focus of our attention.

 

It is really disrespectful to the citizens who volunteer for panels and Blue Ribbon Commissioners like the 2001 Gentrification Task Force, and who spend their time creating recommendations for the City of Atlanta, that their recommendations be completely ignored for fifteen years, only finally to be stricken from the record by a proposed Ordinance like this one.

 

To be sure, 2001 code provisions merely say “should,” not shall – that’s why they’ve been ignored for fifteen years.

 

So, what is the point in erasing them, if they do not have the force of legal mandate?

 

Is it because we don’t even want to say we *should* help extremely low-income families anymore?  Like, we’ve ignored our goals for fifteen years and now it’s simply too much for us to even have them on the books anymore?  We’re no longer even comfortable saying we *should* give a damn about Atlanta’s working families who are struggling the most?

 

I ask that rhetorically because I do think that’s exactly what’s happening here.

 

In fact, I’ve heard CM Dickens say several times that it is not the Mission of the City of Atlanta to provide housing for families making 0 to 30 percent AMI because that is instead the Mission of the Atlanta Housing Authority – this statement is something I vehemently contest as a point of fact.

 

So, it’s no mistake that any commitment to 0 to 30 is being proposed for erasure from our Code of Ordinances, because those families are no longer considered part of the responsibility of the City of Atlanta under the current view of CM Dickens, the Atlanta Development Authority, and at least some in the Reed Administration.

 

Which, it is ironic, by the way, that they’d put that responsibility off on the Housing Authority.  Because one of the Whereas Clauses to this ordinance cites AHA’s recent trend toward serving families with vouchers and subsidies up to 80 percent AMI, as a reason for changing the City’s definition.

 

So, if it really is AHA’s sole purview to help those at 0 to 30 AMI, as some would contend, then we’re really in trouble, because AHA has strayed away from that mission too!

 

Tens of thousands of Atlanta households are housing cost-burdened, with the greatest unmet need for affordable housing among families making below 30 percent AMI per year, followed by families making between 30 and 50 percent of AMI.

Atlanta has more than 25,000 renter households subsisting on 20,000 dollars or less per year, and about 13,000 renter households making between 20,000 and 34,999 dollars per year.  This is where the greatest unmet need is.

And yet, Ordinance 16-O-1163 seeks to change the City’s current definition of “affordable housing” to weaken the standard from 50 percent AMI and below, to 80 percent AMI and below, meaning that families making approximately 37,000 dollars per year could still qualify for the so-called “affordable” units.

 

Proponents of this change will say that “80 and below” could still very well include units affordable at 0 to 30, or 30 to 50 for that matter.

 

Also, the Ordinance, while striking several “shoulds,” adds some new “shalls,” some which codify existing practices, and one of which adds a new requirement.

 

Councilman Dickens should be commended for wanting to pursue requirements, to give it some teeth.  No doubt about it.

 

But when you add a set-aside for ADA projects, even a fifteen percent set-aside, it doesn’t do any good when you simultaneously weaken the definition of affordability.

 

Because either one of two things will happen:
Either, one, a non-profit developer will already be planning to build affordable units and will already be receiving public funding that will already have a stronger affordability requirement than the one proposed in the Ordinance.  Which means no new units will be produced because of it.

 

Or, two, you’ll have a developer, likely for-profit, who wasn’t planning affordable units, who will produce a 15 percent set-aside because of the requirement.  Well, in this case, the developer will be saying, okay, I have to meet this 15 percent set-aside requirement, and I can go 80 percent AMI and below, hmmm, I wonder what price point I’ll choose?

 

Please.  What developer will choose to adopt a stronger affordability definition–ie, lower AMI, which means lower rents–out of the goodness of their hearts?  Our historical experience will tell us, approximately zero percent of them will.  So, let’s not fool ourselves or try to make ourselves feel good with a set-aside requirement that will likely do NOTHING to help us meet our greatest unmet housing needs.

 

And now I want to address the issue of mixed-income housing.  Councilmembers Joyce Sheperd (District 12), Ivory Young (District 3), Cleta Winslow (District 4) – this is your favorite thing to talk about, right?

 

Don’t we say we want mixed-income communities because they’re healthier and more integrated and less concentrated and have a higher tax base and so forth?  Don’t we say that when we want to bring investment into a high poverty neighborhood, and we want a stepping stone into something more middle class?

 

Okay, well, let’s be consistent about our commitment to mixed income.

 

Because this Ordinance is at the heart of the issue.

 

If we strip the City’s Code of Ordinances of our historical commitment to help the least of these when public dollars are being spent–because we don’t even want to say we “should” help them–then do we have a real commitment to mixed income housing?

 

Because now what we’re talking about is new market rate developments coming online, sometimes with Development Authority funding, and what type of mix we’re going to require in those instances.

 

Changing the definition of affordability as proposed in this Ordinance makes it less and less likely that 0 to 30 will ever be part of the mix for new development.

 

Stripping our Code of the Gentrification Task Force’s recommendations and statements of “should” would reveal an intent to never include 0 to 30 in the mix.

 

So, I’m challenging Councilmembers to be consistent.  Either oppose these changes now, or stop saying you want mixed-income communities when it’s convenient to a gentrification agenda.  Just say you want poor removal if that’s what you really want.

 

And I don’t believe that’s what any of you actually want – that’s the thing!  I think you need to be reminded about the consequences of your public policy choices on our affordable housing stock, and actually, that’s what the Affordable Housing Impact Statements, which go into effect July 01, 2016, will do.

 

Now, I do want to suggest a counter-proposal, after talking with several stakeholders.  First, don’t weaken the definition of affordable housing.  Create a new definition called “Work Force Housing” if you must to cover something as high as 50 to 80 percent AMI.  Second, leave the 2001 recommendations, the “shoulds” in tact.

 

And third, if you want a new requirement of a fifteen percent set-aside, some component of it needs to be at 0 to 30 percent AMI.  I don’t care if it’s ten percent or even as low as five percent.  I’d rather have a component of the set-aside be targeted towards those who really need the most help, even if it’s a fraction of the set-aside.

 

I’d rather have units we can point to and say – this is a single mother who works at Target who avoided homelessness, and this is a senior citizen on Social Security who can afford food now – rather than, oh look, we produced a large number of new units but they were not much more affordable than what was already available on the market.

 

So, how about: fifteen percent units have to affordable or work force housing, with two-thirds of those (or 10 percent) affordable housing at 50 percent AMI and below, and one-third of those (or five percent) affordable at 30 percent AMI and below.

 

Again, if we want a mix, then let’s have a mix, but let’s not pretend that we’ll get that by weakening our definition of affordable housing, stripping our Code of Ordinances of our commitment to low-income families, or assuming that developers will go above or beyond the minimum of what they’re required to do.

 

Thank you for your time.

 

Matthew Charles Cardinale

CEO, Atlanta Progressive News

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