A city deal to price 10 units in Sandy Springs’ new Cliftwood luxury apartments as affordable to police and middle-income households likely can’t be expanded, an executive of property owner ECI group said at a Jan. 22 community meeting. And one or two police officers may already be receiving the rent discount, even though the deal isn’t yet done, he said.

The deal would make 10 units affordable to public safety employees and middle-income households in the Cliftwood, a new complex at 185 Cliftwood Drive, in exchange for allowing three model units to be occupied. Allowing the new units, and thus the entire deal, requires a rezoning for technical reasons.

Jack Misiura of ECI, center, explains the new units and the affordable housing deal to Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods leaders Ronda Smith, left, and Tochie Blad during a Jan. 22 community meeting at the Cliftwood apartments. (John Ruch)

The proposed affordability deal would last 10 years and would apply to 10 units anywhere in the building. Three of the units would be made available to city public safety employees for $500 a month. Seven of the units would be priced at rates affordable to middle-income households – meaning households making under 120 percent of area median income would qualify, and would pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent and fixed fees.

In exchange, ECI gets to turn those three model units – two one-bedrooms and a three-bedroom – into rentable units. That would increase the complex, which opened last spring, from 248 units to 251 units.

Current monthly rent ranges advertised on the Cliftwood website are: studios, $1,290-$1,890; one-bedrooms, $1,370-$2,080; two-bedrooms, $1,860-$2,895; and three-bedrooms, $2,810-$3,280.

Three residents attended the Jan. 22 community meeting, held in the Cliftwood’s luxurious clubroom, with its textured-stone walls, large-screen TV and vintage videogame machine. One attendee, Tochie Blad of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, asked whether ECI could improve the deal with a longer affordability period or a larger number of units. She asked whether anyone had financial data to show how much the new units would increase the property’s value and revenue for comparison to the affordability numbers.

Jack Misiura, vice president for development with ECI Capital, an ECI Group division, said that city staff proposed the deal without providing such data, and he did not offer to show the company’s own finances.

“We took their deal as presented,” Misiura said. And as for more or longer affordability, he said, “If this was pushed any further, I don’t know that we’d be interested in this deal.”

He said that ECI would not increase market-rate rents to cover the revenue lost in the affordability deal.

The Cliftwood apartment complex as it appears in a marketing photo on its website at thecliftwood.com.

Another attendee, Council of Neighborhoods president Ronda Smith, praised the deal.

“It’s a good thing,” she said, noting the nationwide issue of housing costs. “It’s a dog-eat-dog environment. And affordability is tough.”

While the affordability deal hinges on the rezoning, which still has months of public process ahead, Misiura said he believes the complex is already providing the $500 discount to one or two police officer tenants. He said ECI complexes typically provide discounted rents to police officers in exchange for the security their presence helps to provide, so the city’s deal is just a more deeply discounted version.

Misiura also provide more detail about the unusual situation that led to the model units existing in the first place. During the complex’s development, the city wanted an alley between the apartments and the adjacent Plaza at City Springs shopping center turned into a new public street called Cliftwood Way. City street design standards required a grade change, which exposed a previously underground section of the building. That allowed the possibility of building three more units, due to available window space.

Misiura said ECI requested that the units be built for occupancy, but that city staff advised the company about the community’s “attitude” against adding more apartment units to the area, and that City Council members “were not supportive.” City staff members later returned with the proposal to allow the units in exchange for the affordability deal.

The deal was drafted entirely in private, and Jim Tolbert, the city’s top planning official, waived two public meetings required in the rezoning process, despite the code appearing to have no provision allowing him to do so. That drew a backlash from the city Planning Commission, which on Dec. 21 deferred the rezoning case until the community meetings were held.

While the city was waiving the community meetings for the general public, it also privately sought comment from select officials, emails obtained through an Open Records Act request show. On Nov. 9, a city planning staff member emailed a comment solicitation for three pending zoning or permitting cases, including the Cliftwood deal, to an apparently standard list of recipients. They included the Council of Neighborhoods president; Tom Mahaffey, the president of the Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber of Commerce; and certain officials from the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Fulton County, Fulton County Schools, MARTA and the United States Postal Service. It appears that Smith, the Council of Neighborhoods president, was the only one to reply about the Cliftwood deal, and she wrote in favor.

Now that the community meetings are being held after all, the next one is scheduled for Feb. 12, 6 p.m., at City Hall, 7840 Roswell Road, Building 500. The case is scheduled to return to the Planning Commission on Feb. 27 and for a City Council vote on March 20.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.