Atlanta Ordinance Would Weaken Rental Affordability Standards (UPDATE 1)

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andre dickens

UPDATE 1: This legislation is worse than originally thought.  Not only does it change the affordability definition; it would strip the Code of Ordinances of all the City’s commitments to serving low-income families that came out of the 2001 Gentrification Task Force recommendations.

SEE: http://atlantaprogressivenews.com/2016/04/24/editorial-open-letter-to-atlanta-council-on-16-o-1163-in-opposition/

 

(APN) ATLANTA — An ordinance introduced by Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens (Post 3-at-large) at the Monday, April 18, 2016 Full Council Meeting, seeks to weaken the City of Atlanta’s existing affordable housing standards, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

 

The ordinance will receive a Second Reading at the Community Development/Human Resources Cmte Meeting (CD/HR) on Tuesday, April 26, 2016, at 12:30 p.m., and could be voted upon at the meeting.  Citizens can make public comment on the item at the meeting either way.

 

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

 

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.

 

To be sure, the Ordinance also seeks to add a new requirement for a fifteen percent affordable unit set-aside in new Atlanta Development Authority (“Invest Atlanta”) projects – this could potentially be quite positive.

 

However, by changing the definition of affordable housing at the same time, the Ordinance allows for most, if not all, units to be produced at the higher echelon of “affordability,” meaning that the new units will fail to help Atlanta meet its greatest unmet housing needs.

 

Most Atlantans are unaware that the City even has affordable housing goals.  Indeed, Atlanta Progressive News discovered that many current Councilmembers were unaware of the goals that were adopted in 2001.

 

APN discovered them when reviewing the Code of Ordinances for existing affordable housing policies in 2014.  Apparently, they had been forgotten.

 

The 2001 goals had come out of a Gentrification Task Force in which then-Councilwoman “Able” Mable Thomas, now a State Representative, participated.  And yet, they have not been followed, and they are rarely, if ever, spoken about by Councilmembers or the Administration at meetings of the Atlanta Council’s Community Development/Human Resources Cmte (CD/HR).

 

On many occasions at CD/HR meetings in recent years, advocates like Ben Howard, Ron Shakir, and Brother Anthony Muhammad have criticized the City’s use of public funds–like federal grants such as CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) and HOME–for units that were called “affordable,” but were not actually affordable to Atlanta families with the greatest unmet need.

 

The 2001 goals, to be sure, used the word “should,” not shall, but offered a strong commitment to housing low-income households:

 

“All public subsidies should be targeted so that two-thirds of the subsidies each extremely low income families,” the Code of Ordinances, Section 54-1(b) reads.

 

“The city should utilize the definition of affordability as contained in section 54-1(a) as the standard definition of all housing-related public programs in which the city participates,” the Code reads, referring to the definition that is currently 50 percent AMI and below.

 

“All tax increment financings and tax allocation districts that contain a residential component should include 33 percent of affordable housing units,” the Code reads.

 

The caption of the proposed ordinance is as follows: “AN ORDINANCE TO AMEND CITY OF ATLANTA CODE OF ORDINANCES SECTION 54-1, ENTITLED AFFORDABLE HOUSING, TO REVISE THE DEFINITIONS AND POLICY GOALS; SO AS TO DEFINE AFFORDABLE HOUSING AS SETTING ASIDE AT LEAST FIFTEEN PERCENT (15%) OF THE TOTAL RESIDENTIAL UNITS FOR LEASE TO HOUSEHOLDS EARNING NO MORE THAN EIGHTY PERCENT (80%) OF AREA MEDIAN INCOME…”

 

Councilwoman Archibong, who is a member of CD/HR Cmte, believes the topic needs a great deal of discussion and deliberation – more than a single committee cycle at least.

 

Archibong also proposes changing the affordability definition, although in a different way.  She believes the geographic reference point for the “Area” in Area Median Income should be the City of Atlanta, and not the Metro Atlanta area.

 

“I do think we need to look at our definition of affordability.  I’m not convinced 80 percent AMI is the direction we should go in,” Archibong said.

 

“I’m glad we’re going to have that conversation.  I would like to see us look at Atlanta proper,” as the reference point for AMI, she said.

 

“I’m concerned about the ability of those who live in Atlanta, and want to look at their financial ability as opposed to looking at those around the region,” she said.

 

“People are having to pursue housing options outside of the City of Atlanta,” she said, referring to stories she has heard from her constituents in District 5.

 

“A lot of people are surviving on less than 15,000 dollars per year.  You add in transportation and day care… That’s why I think it’s important to think it through carefully with experts and understand how we can best navigate down this road,” Archibong said.

 

“I’d like to see Atlanta be a standard for this – all around the country, we see there’s low-income families and there’s newcomers, and concerns around, did we manage the transition well?  I want Atlanta to be one of those cities who are managing that transition well, and have all the people who have lived in Atlanta and are stakeholders to have a place at the table.”

 

Dwanda Farmer, one of the nation’s few PhDs in community development, noted that such a weak affordability standard would be so easy for developers to meet–given the fact that many developers already receive other sources of funding to include affordable units, and that the affordability guidelines for those funding sources will likely already have stronger affordability requirements.

 

For example, Low-Income Housing Tax Credits already require a set-aside of twenty percent of units at 50 percent AMI, or forty percent at 60 percent AMI.

 

In other words, most developers will have to do nothing new because of the proposed new requirement in the ordinance.

 

“No matter what tool they use to satisfy public financing, they’ll meet fifteen percent,” affordable at 80 percent AMI, Dr. Farmer noted.

 

Councilman Dickens has previously stated it is not the City’s mission to serve families at 30 percent AMI and below because that is the mission of the Atlanta Housing Authority.

 

However, Farmer says that is a policy choice by the City of Atlanta whether or not they want to serve families at 30 percent AMI and below.

 

“That is up to the discretion of the people who have been elected, that being the Mayor and the City Council, and if the people don’t like it, they have a job to do the next election.”

 

“It needs to be 30,” percent AMI, Sherise Brown, a tenant organizer with Americorp Vista, told APN.

 

“They have a lot of people in 0 to 30 that work, but they do not make enough to pay … rent.  We not going back to College Park and the plantation… we’re staying in the City of Atlanta,” Brown said.

 

“This look like they’re sneaky.  All the parties should be at the table,” Brown said.

 

“Does HUD know about this?  Is HUD in agreement with this?” Brown asked, adding she would contact the national tenants’ organizations.

 

Brown recently asked for a set-aside of affordable units at 0 to 30 percent as part of a Community Benefits Agreement for Turner Field.

 

As previously reported by APN, the Beltline Affordable Housing Advisory board originally, in 2009, proposed a set-aside of units affordable at 30 percent AMI, for projects funded with Beltline Affordable Housing Trust Fund dollars, but it was opposed by Atlanta Beltline, Inc., and the ADA at the time.

 

Still, the Council approved a scoring preference for units at 30 percent AMI, with a requirement at 50 percent AMI and below.  It is not clear how changing the City’s definition of “affordable housing” in general to 80 percent AMI and below, squares with the City’s Beltline-related goals to promote 0 to 30, and 30 to 50.

 

“It’s just ethnic cleansing.  You’re gonna get rid of everyone that built this community, and that’s wrong,” Brown said.

 

“You’ve got to have apartments at 0 to 30 percent AMI.  I don’t care how you do it.  No new development or renovations,” Brown said.

 

“It would help with homelessness, with crime, with health.  They stressing people out with this foolishness,” Brown said.  “They not looking at the root of the problem, and that’s home.”

 

“It’s ridiculous, they got rid of the projects, and now you wanted to get rid of the multi-family ones and the highrises,” Brown said.

 

“I think they want to wipe 0 to 30 percent off the map, and I don’t like it,” Brown said.

 

“Because, if you making that much money, that you in 80 percent AMI, maybe you shouldn’t be in affordable housing,” Brown said.

 

Councilman Dickens did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment.

 

(END/2016)

4 comments

  • Am I the only one that passes, on a semi-regular basis, “upscale” housing of one kind or another that is undersold, under-rented, or just plain under utilized? There is clearly a Market for lower cost housing. Given the subsidies and funding for constructing affordable housing, is it really impossible to turn a profit off building it? It’s not as though anyone expects the developer to move his own family into an ungated, country-club free neighborhood. Why is it so hard to motivate developers to build, sell, and walk away from homes ordinary people can afford?

  • First, let me say who I am — an Atlanta native now living in Vermont. I write books for a living, and I am nearly finished with a book about Atlanta, with a focus on the BeltLine project and its adjacent neighborhoods. But that allows me to deal with a wide array of issues, and I am not limited to the BeltLine areas.

    I am confused by this ordinance. Andre Dickens has talked about a bill for mandatory inclusionary zoning in Atlanta, focusing on “workforce” housing, which means teachers, police, etc. — the middle class, in other words, not the truly impoverished. But this doesn’t seem to be a mandatory inclusionary zoning bill, since it is limited only to projects funded by Invest Atlanta. Am I wrong? What is needed is a bill to force all developers to provide a range of affordable housing in apartments or housing projects of a certain size or above. I agree that it is extremely important to include a sliding scale definition of what “affordability” means, ranging from no income to 80% of area media income (AMI). So I am not opposed to increasing the level to 80% as long as it includes EVERYONE below that level. It seems to me that demanding true affordability for all would create a level playing field for developers. They might scream and yell, but they would be forced to obey the law and could continue to profit by charging higher prices and rental rates for luxury homes and apartments.

    • Mr. Pendergrast,
      I hope you will consider interviewing me for your book, as I have raised a number of issues around the Beltline and affordable housing for years. Actually, the exchanges, in which Beltline Inc. lied about their involvement in opposing the 30 percent AMI requirement, are all on Youtube still.

      This is not the Inclusionary Zoning ordinance, which has not yet been introduced.

      Yes, as I understand, that ordinance (IZ) will also likely have high AMI affordability definition – so you are correct that is the intent.

      The use of 80 percent AMI triggers essentially the same problems, whether in the context of IZ, or in the context of changing the general definition of affordable housing, or as applied to an ADA (“Invest Atlanta”) set-aside requirement. And that is, it’s not helping us meet our greatest unmet housing needs.

      I’m not saying it’s easy for teachers or firefighters. But, with all due respect, and as someone who was Extremely Low Income as a freelance writer and drawing no income from Atlanta Progressive News for eight years – those are not the people who are having anxiety and tears and heartache and high blood pressure, over what Miracle of God will allow them to pay the rent this month. And then the children have to see their parents go through that. I’m talking about the people at risk of homelessness who must be the focus of our concern.

      Our tools and resources to address our affordable housing shortage within a market-based approach are quite limited – including our dwindling sources of public funding. When public dollars are used especially, we must make sure we’re doing everything we can to help those at 0 to 30 percent AMI, followed by those at 30 to 50 percent AMI.

      I need to run an update, but I also learned upon further review of the ordinance, that this ordinance would COMPLETELY STRIP THE CODE OF ORDINANCES OF EVERY SINGLE RECOMMENDATION that came out of the 2001 Gentrification Task Force. So, it’s even worse than I described.

      The debate over AMI was coming. I thought it was coming with IZ, but they tried to pull this stealth change of our Code’s definition of “affordable housing” to preempt the debate, from what I perceive.

      Finally, you are correct that “80 percent AMI and below” can include 0-30 percent AMI. But as was described in the article: Either the developer will do nothing new as a result of this requirement because they will already have planned affordable units to satisfy requirements in connection with public funding sources. OR, some new units will come out of this, in which case the developer was not planning affordable housing, and will probably do the absolute minimum possible to satisfy the 15% set-aside, which means using the highest AMI possible. Do you really think a developer, out of the goodness of their heart, will opt to go above and beyond the minimum requirement? Which means we’re only producing more units at the higher echelon.

      There is nothing in this to specify, for example, a carve out for 30 percent AMI. I would prefer to see something like – 15 percent set-aside at 80 percent AMI, with at least 2/3 of that, or a ten percent set-aside at 30 percent AMI. Seriously, I want to be able to point to some units and say, this is a single mother working at Target, and this is a senior citizen on Social Security.

      And, where is the commitment to mixed income? We say we want mixed income when we’re transitioning a neighborhood from high poverty to lower poverty. We say we want it when we tear down housing projects. But why, when we create market rate new projects, do we fail to include the full “mix” that we claim to want when it justifies gentrification?

      So, no, 80 percent and below is not a mix, when everything else is market rate, and there is no reason to believe that those at 0 to 30–who are, after all, a part of our community, and our electorate–will ever be part of the “mix.” So, the stated desire for mixed income communities is hypocritical and is revealed as a cynical tool to achieve just the opposite.

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