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The czar of housing?

A builder-friendly task force offers up its solutions to Atlanta's housing woes


Anyone who's spent more than five minutes in Candler Park, Grant Park or East Atlanta can see the middle class has arrived, staked claim and shows no sign of retreating. If the Volvos and SUVs parked curbside aren't enough to clue you in, the "For Sale" signs with quarter-million dollar asking prices, as well as the standard four-figure rents, ought to point out the obvious: Many of the poor who once lived here no longer call these streets home.
So it seems somewhat illogical that a task force, appointed by Mayor Shirley Franklin to study the gap between the cost of housing and a typical worker's salary, is recommending that Atlanta become more affordable by luring more of the middle class -- the very group that displaced some of the poorer, working-class families to begin with.

Well, maybe not that illogical, especially when you consider that the task force, which spent seven months coming up with ways to increase and improve the shrinking stock of housing for working-class families, is comprised mostly of developers who stand to benefit from an influx of potential buyers and renters.

Larry Keating, a Georgia Tech professor and head of a different mayoral task force appointed to study gentrification, says he's wary of this task force's driving goal.

"Bringing the middle class back is not something we need to subsidize," Keating says. "It's already happening."

Some advocates for the poor complain that the task force -- because of its very makeup -- geared its recommendations more toward new construction and higher tax bases and less toward improving social services.

"It mirrors Dick Cheney's energy task force," says Scott Ball, executive director of the Community Housing Resource Center, which helps find housing for the poor. "This is affordable housing policy imagined by developers."

In fairness to the 11-member task force (and the mayor who appointed it), chairman Egbert Perry, principal of the development firm the Integral Group, has partnered with the Atlanta Housing Authority to build mixed-income communities. Another member, Bruce Gunter, heads Progressive Redevelopment Inc., a nonprofit that has developed housing for the homeless and poor. And three other members work for nonprofit groups that help low-income families buy homes.

More importantly, the very fact that the task force isn't stocked with your usual suspects means that the solutions it comes up with may not be usual, either. Developers like Gunter and Perry may be on to something when they surmise that the best way to create more affordable housing is to make construction of affordable housing profitable for developers.

"We want to drain some of the emotion from it and talk practical," Gunter says. "How do we do this so developers can make money?"

A June draft of the study, obtained by CL, describes the task force's intent as spurring, if not gentrification, then mixed-income development: "First, we want to encourage the recent trend of more families and individuals moving back into the city to live," the study states, adding, "The ideal neighborhoods contain ... workforce and upper scale housing in the same neighborhood."

Although Perry would not comment on the specifics of the study -- he's waiting for the mayor to give her opinion of it this week -- he did point out that the task force was originally formed to look strictly at the need for more affordable housing.

"But when we got into it and realized how limited the city's resources were, in part because of the absence of a sizable middle class, we realized we needed to have a housing policy that provided the full spectrum of housing options," Perry says.

Thus the task force focused on finding ways to help individuals who make less than $40,000, and families who make less than $57,000, find a decent place to live.

Ball, an advocate for the poor, admits that while he's concerned about city funds for the poor being spent on the middle class, at least one of the task force's recommendations has piqued his interest -- the task force's proposal that the mayor appoint a housing czar. The czar would coordinate different government entities that have a hand in housing -- such as housing code enforcement, the Bureau of Housing Finance and the Atlanta Development Authority. The czar would also apply for and dish out grants from government and nonprofit agencies to community development centers like Ball's.

In addition to the housing czar, the task force is recommending several solutions it believes could offset the pangs of gentrification and spur healthy revitalization, including:

  • a tax break for seniors and disabled homeowners allowing them to wait until they sell their home to pay their exorbitantly high property taxes. (Decatur has already enacted a similar provision.)

  • the relaxing of the city's Kafkaesque building permit application process, which can be wearisome enough to prohibit the renovation of deteriorating homes. It takes so long to obtain a permit that some developers pay employees to wait in line at the city's permit office.

  • the creation of a new zoning classification that would encourage developers to build a few homes for the poor -- say, 10, in an 80-unit complex -- at all new construction projects.

    Task force member Gunter points out that private developers and nonprofit ones have already built successful properties that include a set number of units for less affluent tenants. StudioPlex on Auburn Avenue subsidizes rent for artists and the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts on Boulevard has discounted rent for lower-income residents.

    The ultimate exemplar of mixing the poor and middle class, though, is the Atlanta Housing Authority, which has rebuilt eight of its massive housing complexes as mixed-income with another two in the works. (It should come as no surprise that the task force is pushing for mixed-income communities, seeing that Renee Glover, executive director of the Housing Authority, is one of its members.)

    The caveat with mixed-income communities, though, is apparent in the Housing Authority's stunning citywide revitalization. In mixed-income communities -- just like in the naturally gentrifying neighborhoods of Grant Park, Candler Park and East Atlanta -- the majority of the poor tend to get shut out.

    Gunter says he and the task force are aware of the fine line between encouraging mixed-income communities and doing the poor a disservice. "The very act of revitalizing your city can act to force them out," he says.

    But Gunter still backs Perry to the extent that he believes more middle-class families need to move to the city.

    And he points out that the task force's recommendations -- particularly the tax break and the zoning rule -- will start easing the negative effects of revitalization.

    The start, however, may prove to have been too slow. In places like East Atlanta, many longtime residents couldn't afford to pay taxes on their skyrocketing home values and had to move.

    For them, it's too late for a tax break, or any of the task force's recommendations.

    "You wish you'd have had it in place a few years ago," Gunter says.

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