Resetting the Atlanta BeltLine’s Focus on Equitable Development – Next City

Resetting the Atlanta BeltLine’s Focus on Equitable Development

A section of the Atlanta BeltLine. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

If one figure has come to loom large surrounding the development of the Atlanta BeltLine, it’s 5,600. That’s the number of affordable housing units promised at the beginning of the ambitious revitalization of former railroad rights-of-way encircling the core of the city.

Atlanta BeltLine Partnership is the private nonprofit formed in 2005 to advance, and fundraise for, the BeltLine vision. In 2006, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. was established to oversee the infrastructure proposal that includes transit, trails, parks, public art, economic development, environmental sustainability, historic preservation and affordable housing along the 22-mile corridor.

But in 2016, the BeltLine’s original visionary and a fellow board member resigned from the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership’s board, citing concerns about equitable development. Last year, a report from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Georgia News Lab found only 785 of the 5,600 units had been funded, reporting that the “mission of keeping black families and middle and low-income residents from being pushed from their neighborhoods became an afterthought to building parks and trails.”

Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the agency responsible for enabling affordable housing development within Atlanta’s BeltLine tax allocation district, now finds itself in significant transition under interim CEO Clyde Higgs. (This summer, Brian McGowan, who served as CEO for less than a year, announced he’d be leaving his post.) But the agency hopes to emerge with a renewed focus on affordable housing. As a first step, they released a final report from a working group including public, private, and nonprofit voices on how the agency can hit — and hopefully surpass — its goal of 5,600 affordable units.

“From a high-level perspective, this is absolutely the focus for the organization,” says Higgs. The working group kicked off roughly six months ago with a diverse membership including Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority; real estate firm Columbia Residential; and Wells Fargo.

“We wanted to look at how our organization could be more nimble in how it could respond to opportunities,” Higgs says.

One thing the report is quick to point out: that Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. “is neither a housing provider nor a development authority.” Moving forward, it notes, the agency will rely on “strategic partners” to hit its goal of 5,600 affordable units.

Partnerships will be necessary for funding new housing, the report states. The Atlanta BeltLine Redevelopment Plan initially projected that funding through seven bond issuances from a tax allocation district set up in 2005 would raise $240 million for affordable housing by 2030. Also commonly known as tax increment financing in other cities, Atlanta’s tax allocation districts capture additional property tax revenues generated as a result of rising property values related to planned development projects, such as the BeltLine. The captured revenues are typically used to repay bonds issued to raise capital for projects within the tax allocation district.

Unfortunately for the BeltLine, the economy tanked a few years after the creation of its tax allocation district, and to date, only two bonds have been issued, raising $25 million — just 10.4 percent of the anticipated affordable housing funding.

Yet another challenge is diminished federal, state and city funding, alongside rising construction and land costs. “The effect of these two realities means affordable housing development requires more subsidy per unit than originally projected a decade ago in the Redevelopment Plan,” says the report.

While the city also set up an affordable housing trust fund for the BeltLine, the money can only be spent within the tax allocation district. Atlanta BeltLine Inc. also established a “planning area,” including all land within one-half mile on either side of the BeltLine, where the agency will rely on outside funding. The BeltLine tax allocation district covers only parts of the planning area.

One key recommendation from the working group is to expand the affordable housing count to include all units in the tax allocation district as well as the planning area, regardless of funding source. Counting units in both areas was a controversial move under former BeltLine CEO Paul Morris, who resigned in the wake of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. But the report envisions that in widening the development scope and spearheading a new capital strategy that better leverages public, private and philanthropic funds, the agency can ultimately surpass 5,600 units.

There’s a belief within Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. that the agency must also do a better job in explaining the nuance of the tax allocation district to the public, and how it informs where the agency can pursue housing development.

“The [tax allocation district] is not something the BeltLine created, it’s a funding mechanism that was created to jumpstart everything,” says Dwayne Vaughn, appointed this year to the newly-created position of vice president of housing policy and development. “But it’s not an exclusive or exclusionary kind of tool, and that’s why we have the broader planning area. Education is key in getting that across.”

The report recommends the agency better chart its progress to the public, as well as create a public template for periodic reporting in regards to affordable housing goals. Better communication, they hope, will also translate to greater advocacy for increased funding.

“We want to make sure people are aware we need funding, and quite frankly a lot of that pressure has to come from the community,” says Twanna Harris, also appointed this year to the new position of vice president of brand, content and strategic initiatives.

Beyond engaging the community and local politicians for funding, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. intends to focus its attention on existing residents at risk of displacement. The report identifies the importance of helping families within 30 to 60 percent of the area median to remain within the BeltLine planning area.

According to Vaughn, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. is considering spearheading a displacement study and setting up a displacement hotline. “There needs be some mechanism so we can understand, before someone moves, the economic pressures that may cause that,” he says.

Vaughn adds that the agency is reaching out to neighborhood associations to increase communication about property values surrounding the BeltLine.

To date, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and its partners have either developed or preserved 1,600 units within the tax allocation district and 1,042 units within the broader planning area. The report outlines that specifically within the tax allocation district, the agency plans to create or preserve 250 units annually through 2020, 320 units annually between 2021 and 2025, and 380 units annually between 2026 and 2030 to hit its 5,600-unit goal.

Such a goal now holds significant weight, given past controversy. But the new team feels optimistic after making affordable housing a clear priority.

“Before I transitioned into this role, I talked to [Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms] and she drove it home — affordable housing should be at the forefront of my activity,” Higgs says. “I have my marching orders to focus on the BeltLine’s affordability piece.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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