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Next AHA commissioner is more vital than you think

The next housing chief needs to do more than manage federal programs

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Three weeks ago, longtime Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover announced her resignation. Glover oversaw the demolition of housing projects and the development of mixed-income communities operated by private firms. Now, the AHA's board will look to find her successor.

While this might seem like bureaucratic shuffling, Glover's exit comes at a critical time for the city's housing and neighborhood development policy. The decisions made in the next few years will affect the city for years to come. And there's an opportunity to rethink how Atlanta helps lower income families find a place to live.

While the devastation of the foreclosure crisis has scarred many neighborhoods, new foreclosures have slowed and housing values are stabilizing in others. At the same time, some of the other agencies that can shape the future of housing and neighborhoods are revisiting their housing policies.

Different agencies play important roles in affordable housing in the city. The AHA continues to manage subsidy programs for low-income families and the elderly — the largest of these being the Housing Choice Voucher program, which helps make rent more affordable. It also helps determine the distribution and types of Atlanta's low-income and senior housing.

The city plays a multifaceted role, including its planning functions and housing code enforcement. (The latter could help tackle the substantial numbers of vacant and blighted homes and alleviate the negative effects they have on a community — think crime and lower property values — and help increase demand for housing in affected neighborhoods.) Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development arm, manages funding programs, including homeowner assistance and financing for large apartment buildings. Atlanta Beltline Inc., the nonprofit that develops the Beltline, oversees an affordable housing program for people living on low incomes along the 22-mile loop.

Quality and affordable housing for middle-income families is something city officials need to monitor and pay attention to. Without adequate housing options for middle-income households, Atlanta will become plagued by even more economic inequality than it is already. However, Atlanta, compared to some other larger cities like Boston or San Francisco, does not have as severe an affordability problem with respect to middle-income households.

Atlanta's housing problems are mostly centered among low-income families, especially those with incomes below 50-60 percent of median income, which translates to people earning roughly $40,000 a year. For these families, housing tends to consume a very large share of a family's income. And eviction and housing instability spill directly over into school instability and family stress. A growing body of research shows that housing quality, affordability, and stability form a critical context for the welfare of children and families, including health and academic achievement. And these two outcomes are powerful predictors of overall quality of life and economic mobility. In short, housing decisions affect everyday Atlanta.

With all that in mind, the new AHA director and these agencies must confront several of Atlanta's challenges over the next five to 10 years.

First, housing officials need to leverage new development to help those who need housing and development most. Like the economic recovery generally, the recovery of Atlanta's neighborhoods is severely unbalanced, with much more positive signs in places like Midtown, Buckhead, and the east side of the city. Atlanta needs to reinvest some of the benefits of growth in ways that will also help those not already profiting from the recovery. When Invest Atlanta awards tens of millions of dollars in bond financing for luxury high-rise apartments, it must demand that more than a paltry 5 percent of units get set aside for affordable housing. And when major development projects benefit directly from adjacency to the Beltline, city leaders need to expect that the developers will provide significant amounts of affordable housing in their projects.

City housing leaders must do more because federal housing programs are suffering. The sequester has walloped the Housing Choice Voucher program, the largest source of housing support. And despite a fairly strong track record, the program is not winning many new fans in Congress. Federal affordable homeownership programs are even less popular in Washington — partly due to false narratives that blame such programs for the subprime crisis — and mortgage markets are likely to get more restrictive. State and local officials should offer more affordable financing options that can provide homeownership and home improvement opportunities. And responsible landlords could be convinced to provide decent quality, affordable rental housing with smart subsidies. Without such efforts, housing and neighborhood stability will suffer, harming the entire city.

Affordable housing needs to be distributed where it will provide economic opportunity. Poor quality, or poorly situated, housing can create obstacles to economic opportunity, such as a lack of access to decent schools, residential instability, crime, and inadequate transportation to jobs or health care. When we invest in projects like the Downtown streetcar or the Beltline, we need to ensure affordable housing is part of the equation.

Finally, we need more transparency. Detailed data on the investments, subsidies, and other activities of the AHA or the Beltline, for example, are often not easy to obtain. These are public dollars, and granular data should be available on each agency's website. The same goes for data from agencies about the general housing market, including home sales, tax liens, and code violations.

If the housing market is to recover in a way that strengthens the social and economic fabric of the city, the new AHA needs to be more than a manager of federal programs. He or she needs to confront these problems, work with other housing agencies, and provide leadership in the affordable housing arena at a critical time. Without such attention, Atlanta is likely to continue to rank high among those urban areas with the least economic mobility.

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