Improving Atlanta Neighborhoods without Displacing Residents: it’s a struggle

By raising land values, urban improvements can benefit the wealthy and hurt the the poor. Longtime residents — renters are primarily vulnerable to this — can be priced out of neighborhoods they’ve been advocates for, unable to enjoy the results of their efforts.

It’s a troubling scenario that unfairly pits lower-income residents against proposals for things like new parks and bike lanes and reductions in blight; with the stakes being the ability to stay in their homes.

But is the culprit the new amenities and developments in themselves, or is it the lack of protections for the vulnerable? When cities have insufficient tools in place for preventing the harm caused by raised land values, the benefits of improvements to neighborhoods are going to be felt in an unequal way.

An unwanted green space in Vine City

Proposed park for Vine City in Atlanta

Here’s a real example of this “improvements causing stress” conundrum. A new park proposed for Atlanta’s Vine City neighborhood is creating unease among residents worried about home values rising:

“Alma Lott, who has lived in Vine City for more than 20 years, said she’s not sold on the benefits [of the new park]. She’s worried about property taxes going up, rent being raised and people losing their homes. “I don’t think a park is a solution,” she said. “They need to hold off on these parks until they get the housing right.””

For perspective on home values in this neighborhood, compared to the rest of Atlanta, look at the image below and notice that prices in Vine City are relatively low.

Image source: America’s great housing divide: Are you a winner or loser?

With values this low, it’s understandable that a significant increase could have big repercussions on the community. A set of tools that ensures Vine City residents’ that their housing will remain affordable is needed.

So does this mean we should we hold off on making this neighborhood improvement? It’s a tough issue.

What is housing security? Isn’t that just the opposite of homelessness?

Displacement, affordability and related topics often get discussed under the hot-button tentpole of “gentrification.” But a more holistic and positive approach might be to look at these from the angle of “housing security.”

This approach highlights the thing that we want to have — security of homes amid changes that improve neighborhoods — versus simply demonizing the effects of neighborhood changes. It puts the onus of securing stability on local governments where it should be, rather than on the backs of residents, or of groups who may just want to help create nicer places.

When you see the phrase “housing security,” you might initially think of it in terms of people being threatened with homelessness. But it extends beyond that extreme example.

From a 2016 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta:

“Housing instability or insecurity is different from the typical definition of homelessness. It describes the condition where a household or family has a residence, but because of personal and financial issues, has difficulty maintaining that residence”

There’s an area in between homelessness and housing stability that can be a struggle for many people. It’s a situation that causes significant psychological turmoil for families, particularly with the threat of eviction looming always.

In fact, a recent look at an eviction crisis in US cities found that ownership of properties by “Wall Street landlords” is contributing to housing instability in Atlanta. Here’s a quote from that piece that underscores how easy it can be to boot a family out of their home here:

Evictions are cheap in Atlanta: about $85 in court fees and another $20 to have the tenant ejected, report co-author Michael Lucas told Bloomberg, which added: “With few of the tenant protections of places like New York, a family can find itself homeless in less than a month.”

There’s hope

Luckily we have tools for maintaining affordable housing amid new developments and improvements and they’re available to Atlanta. Our use of them depends upon political will and priorities, which in turn depends upon how much pressure city residents put on their leaders to prioritize housing stability.

In a region that sprawls outward as much as Atlanta does, with a big supply of “drive until you qualify” homes at relatively low costs on the fringes, it can be difficult to convince urbanites to prize economic inclusiveness and housing stability in the center city. But it’s important that we do so. And once we’ve made up our minds to do it, the good news is that the availability of engagement outlets in the city makes it possible for our voices to be heard by leaders.

Residents: demand that Atlanta leaders prioritize affordability

The Atlanta BeltLine, where new apartments are being produced around its chain of parks, green space and bike/ped infrastructure, is the focus of much attention now when it comes to housing affordability, and rightly so.

One of the main intentions of the project was to provide new homes in an equitable way. But it has failed to meet its goals on that front — something that prompted the resignation of BeltLine mastermind Ryan Gravel last year from one of its boards. In a recent City Lab interview, he addressed the importance of city residents to demand better work on housing affordability from leaders:

“If you care about the places you’re working in, then you have to be talking about this…in a growing economy, if you’re building a greenway trail or a transit station or improving a school, it will drive up land values.”

The answer is not not to build parks and other improvements, Gravel says, or to hold neglected places back. The problems are essentially financial, and there are ways to fix them…tools do exist. “It’s mostly about finding the will,” says Gravel. “That comes from leadership. But the public also needs to say this is important, and needs to demand that we do better.”
— Ryan Gravel, as quoted in City Lab

FOR MORE ON THIS TOPIC…

ThreadATL is publishing a short series on housing security on our blog starting this week. Please take a look!

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