No matter how green its parks, sleek its streetcars and well-maintained its bike trails, should the planned Beltline become a playground solely for the well-heeled, it will have failed at one of its core objectives.
From its beginnings, one of the most important initiatives of the $2.8 billion Beltline project has been to ensure that people of all incomes have an opportunity to live near or along the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit. And even more importantly, to prevent Atlanta from repeating the past mistake of sweeping out longstanding communities for the cause of revitalization.
With last November’s referendum to allow school systems to legally participate in redevelopment projects — and the Atlanta Public Schools’ recent decision to once again opt into the Beltline’s tax allocation district — the largest public works endeavor of its kind in the country is now moving closer to becoming a reality.
According to Beltline legislation, 15 percent of the taxpayer dollars used to fund the project — about $240 million — must be set aside for affordable housing. The goal: 5,600 affordable units distributed throughout Atlanta over the 25-year lifespan of the project’s TAD, its main funding source. The first round of that funding, totaling $8.3 million, is currently under way.
"Arguably, that’s the largest single pot of money for affordable housing in the city of Atlanta," says Bruce Gunter, president and CEO of affordable-housing developer Progressive Redevelopment Inc., who’s pushed for mixed-income communities and work force housing for more than 20 years. "I remember when you couldn’t get diddly for affordable housing."
But the program had the misfortune to kick off in the middle of the big real estate meltdown. And the advisory board tasked with helping guide the program was recently told of an unforeseen ethical snafu.
In December, Gunter, then chair of the Beltline Affordable Housing Advisory Board, asked Ginny Looney, the city’s ethics officer, whether he and his fellow board members would be allowed to apply for the affordable housing incentive funds.
The role of the 16-member board — composed largely of nonprofit developers and policy wonks — is strictly advisory; members have no say over how funds are allocated or which organizations are selected to receive money. Still, Looney and the city’s ethics board ruled in March that it would be a conflict of interest for board members to compete for funds.
If members want to apply, they would have to resign from the board and face a one-year “cooling-off” period, similar to what state and federal lawmakers undergo before they become lobbyists. Board members who resigned could apply for a waiver to exempt them from the ruling, which the ethics board would have to consider.
Four board members submitted their resignations, Gunter included.
Gunter says he understands the ethics board’s ruling, as the board’s preliminary work was complete. But the ruling caused concern for some affordable housing advocates, who said the city was losing some of the smartest minds in the room when it comes to one of Atlanta’s biggest obstacles to true smart growth.
“On the one hand, you can understand why [ethics officers] would want to have that very clear, crisp understanding of that,” says Andy Schneggenburger, executive director of the Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-based Developers. “But this is one of those situations where the policy is leading the city to shoot itself in the foot to some degree.”
Advocates say the ruling also hamstrung some board members who work for or help manage community development corporations, or CDCs — small nonprofit groups rooted in neighborhoods and also stymied by the economic collapse.
Efforts by CL to reach several CDCs were unsuccessful, possibly because most have been forced to downsize staff. Calls were rerouted to general voicemail; e-mails were answered with automatic replies.
Dawn Luke, deputy director of housing finance for the Atlanta Development Authority, oversees the affordable housing incentive program. She says current interest in the program mirrors the reality of the marketplace: Few developers can secure the financing to build right now, but a large number of people are looking to buy.
Luke says she receives 25 to 30 calls from prospective homebuyers interested in the trust fund's downpayment assistance program, which offers no-interest loans that cover up to 20 percent of the price of a home along or near the Beltline for people living on low incomes. Sky Lofts, a West End high-rise, has sold 22 affordable units thanks to the assistance in the last few months, she says.
But developer interest in incentive dollars for condos and apartments — vital building blocks of the Beltline vision — has been minimal, Luke says. And if the affordable housing trust fund dollars aren’t spent in three years, some of the money might have to be used to pay back bonds. Trust fund programs are flexible for this reason, Luke explains; if one program sees more interest than another, funds can be transferred from an underperforming area.
So, at a time when high-rises sit empty, condos are sold at fire-sale prices and foreclosures pepper streets around the city, why do we even need to worry about affordable Beltline housing?
Says Dan Immergluck, an associate professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, “With mixed-income communities, the evidence is clear: You have better schools, you have better quality-of-life than if you segregate people by income, [with] neighborhoods of low-income people living next to high-income people. You get social disorder out of that.
“If you’re going to subsidize something with taxpayer dollars,” he adds, “then the benefits need to be for everybody.”