EDITORIAL: 30 Percent AMI on the Beltline; Now or Never
(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta City Council members need to stop declaring their desire for “mixed-income communities,” unless they are willing to at some point enact public policies that actually support each part of the mix.
The time is now to enact a public policy to produce units to benefit Atlanta’s working households making 15,000 dollars and less per year, or around 30 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI).
The thousands of families in the 0 to 30 percent AMI bracket are least likely to see options in new market-rate developments. Meanwhile, the existing affordable options for these families are disappearing before their very eyes – much due to rental increases in the private market that have been spurred by taxpayer investment in the Atlanta Beltline itself.
But time and time again, these are the families who are being left out of the public policy decisions being made by the City of Atlanta.
In 2009, the Beltline Affordable Housing Advisory Board (BAHAB) recommended that any multi-family developments funded with revenues from the Beltline TAD (Tax Allocation District) be required to include units affordable at zero to 30 percent AMI.
However, Atlanta Beltline, Inc., and the Atlanta Development Authority opposed this – so the requirement was, instead, for 50 percent AMI.
Earlier this year, when Councilman Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large) introduced legislation to require that any development authorities doing business within the City of Atlanta include affordable units in the multi-family projects they fund – he proposed units at 80 percent AMI.
80 percent AMI refers to units affordable to families making approximately 35,000 dollars per year – or units affordable at around 1,000 dollars per month.
The present writer had drafted, and advocated for, an amendment to provide options at 30 percent AMI, but Dickens introduced a compromise amendment for an option for developers at 60 percent AMI, which passed the Council.
Now, again, we’re back at the table talking about an inclusionary zoning requirement for the Beltline overlay district proposed by Councilman Dickens.
To be sure, Dickens should be applauded for putting mandatory IZ on the table; and actually, Atlanta needs IZ citywide.
Dickens’s IZ proposal would require developers within the Beltline overlay to produce units, and, as currently proposed, they would receive either tax incentives or zoning incentives in return.
But, per Dickens’s proposal, the units that the City would require, would, again, be at 60 or 80 percent AMI. So, what are we truly getting? Not the units that represent our current greatest unmet need as the City of Atlanta, as measured by the numbers of families with housing cost burden, or the lack of other options of the market.
The Beltline TAD, by design, is a gentrification project, with the stated goal of increasing property values, thus, property tax revenue to the City – a public investment in amenities and development that results in losses of affordable units on the private market through rent increases and property tax increases.
The promise to produce new affordable units was supposed to help mitigate the displacement everyone knew the Beltline would cause.
To date, only 570 affordable units have been produced in connection with the Beltline, even though the City adopted a goal of 5,600 new affordable units by 2027.
Attention to this issue has been re-energized by the recent resignations of Ryan Gravel and Nathaniel Smith from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership.
APN has been reporting on this issue, often in the wilderness and treated with disdain for daring to question the greatness of the Beltline, for nearly eight years.
(See also: “Talking ‘bout the Beltline makes me wanna lose my mind”)
To be sure, there is pressure to produce a large volume of units, to make up for the failure to meet commitments to date.
However, we don’t get there by producing lots and lots of units at 80 percent AMI, that require little subsidy, producing additional options for people who already have options on the market.
Such options do not even meet the definition of affordable housing in the City code. [I would know; Dickens tried to quietly change the definition earlier this year, but dropped that part of the proposal after critical coverage by APN.]
If we really are all about mixed-income communities–which we claimed when we demolished Atlanta’s public housing communities, removing thousands of units from our affordable housing stock–then it needs to be reflected in our public policies.
Otherwise, let’s be honest and say that “mixed income” is just a stepping stone to “bourgeois, bourgeois.”
So, what does that mean for the current proposals before the Council?
It means they should be amended to require that the units are affordable at 30 percent AMI, even if it means there are fewer units required. That is, when more subsidy is required per unit, then fewer units are produced. And we need to say, we’re okay with that in this instance.
The 50 percent AMI’s got Round One.
The 60 and 80 percent AMI’s got Round Two.
What about the low-income, working families of Atlanta? Like the good Hillary Clinton says, “It’s our time.”
And if that means deeper subsidies per unit, and thus fewer units produced, I’d rather point to those fewer units and say, “This is a family we got out of the homeless shelter, the mother works at Target. On the second floor is a senior who was sleeping in his car,” than, “Oh look, we produced units we did not necessarily need right now for people who already had options on the market.”
Dickens’s proposal also provides for an alternative option for developers to pay a substantial in lieu fee to the City; and would create a new Beltline Affordable Housing Trust Fund, to be controlled by the City, to administer those revenues.
I believe this Trust Fund proposal should be expanded to simply be the City of Atlanta Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and we should think of it as a source for all of the creative revenues we’re going to think of to solve this crisis as a City.
And, to be sure, we must require that any housing produced by this Trust Fund include a specific amount of 30 percent AMI units – I would be in support of that specific amount being all the units. After all, when it’s our fund, we should be able to do what we want.
And, after all the years of worrying about how requiring affordable housing might prohibit development, this is a policy specific to the Beltline. Do we really think developers will just give up on the millions they’re poised to make simply because they have to make a measly provision for affordable units? No – if there were ever a time to target our policy to a 30 percent AMI bracket, it’s now.
In the meantime, we must revisit and revise the Beltline affordable housing goal of 5,600 units to require that at least 1,867, or one third of those units, be affordable at 0 to 30 percent AMI. Apparently, we need to get that specific with these people.
We also should adopt a surplus property policy, whereby the City agrees to always consider an affordable housing use first when disposing of City surplus property. One of the highest costs in developing affordable housing is the cost of the land – it is a moral travesty to not have produced at least some affordable housing from the former City Hall East campus. Ditto Civic Center, Turner Field…
Finally, we need to adopt a comprehensive citywide strategy to put Preservation First, to promote the preservation and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing in all city policies and practices. After all, a unit saved is a unit earned.
Atlantans who are concerned about the cost of housing in Atlanta are invited to attend Councilman Dickens’s first Work Session on Wednesday, November 02, 2016, at 3p.m., at City Hall in Committee Room 1. Public comment will be allowed and housing advocates should use this opportunity to make their voices heard, especially with city elections one year away.
Matthew Charles Cardinale is the CEO of Atlanta Progressive News; and the CEO of State and Municipal Action for Results Today / Agenda for Legislative Empowerment and Collaboration (SMART ALEC). He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.
A third year law student, he has drafted several pieces of legislation that are now law in the City of Atlanta, including Affordable Housing Impact Statements. AHIS is now pending in four U.S. cities. Earlier this year, SMART ALEC worked with the New Orleans City Planning Commission, which has unanimously recommended adoption of AHIS.