Two affordable housing advocates who co-chaired Sandy Springs’ North End Revitalization Task Force and voted against the final plan because they believe it would drive gentrification and displacement say results of a survey they conducted show the community agrees with them.
Task force co-chairs David and Melanie Couchman, along with a housing expert, voted against the report approved by the rest of the city’s north end task force in December, saying it lacked some key displacement protections. The report is expected to be reviewed by the City Council at its Jan. 22 retreat.
“What we learned was that when people hear the positives and negatives, most people have serious doubts about the current plan being offered,” the Couchmans said in the statement. “While people in our community favor progress, most do not believe we should go forward with the proposed plan but believe the city should go back to the drawing board.”
The Couchmans and their philanthropic Couchman-Noble Foundation formerly pushed a secret affordable housing concept that influenced the city’s policy discussions behind the scenes. One result of that effort was their appointment to the task force as co-chairs.
The questions “presented people in our community with the best arguments, both for and against the current plan,” the Couchmans said.
A few of the survey’s questions asked whether respondents were convinced by arguments the plan would reduce crime; make a profit for developers while risking taxpayer funds; displace residents like teachers, police officers and nurses; and destabilize schools, causing redistricting.
“When Cobb County tore down old, dilapidated apartments and replaced them with high-end retail and more single-family homes, crime dropped dramatically. This plan could produce similar results for Sandy Springs,” one argument posed in the survey said. Respondents were then asked if they thought that was a convincing reason.
“The task force that wrote the plan is dominated by well-connected developers who stand to make millions if the plan is a success, while sticking taxpayers with significant debt and losses if anything goes wrong,” another argument said.
The survey was advertised on Facebook earlier this month and did not disclose who was conducting it. The Couchmans say they hired a professional polling firm, which they did not identify. It is unknown how many people responded or how the results will be used.
The survey also asked respondents their opinions on public figures, like Mayor Rusty Paul, President Donald Trump, former Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, Councilmember Steve Soteres and Melanie Couchman. It also asked about respondents’ political beliefs and party.
The city-created task force worked for several months in 2018 to draft a plan to bring new development to the north end, ultimately deciding on six key proposals: build a multiuse trail; incentivize new mixed-use and mixed-income developments; make Roswell Road improvements; build new streets and pedestrian connections; create new access to the Chattahoochee River; and build a community center and swimming complex.
The Couchmans and an affordable housing expert voted against the plan after they were unable to get support for several of their key ideas, including an anti-displacement and relocation policy; hiring a staff member to oversee affordable housing initiatives; and stronger encouragement of preservation of existing affordable housing.
Some ideas they advocated for that did make it into the final plan included studying the current housing stock, schools, transportation and businesses; creating an affordable housing impact statement; and providing financial assistance to property owners to renovate apartments while keeping them affordable.
The Couchmans said they commissioned the survey because they “wanted to more fully understand the opinions of the broader community, especially since the task force did not include representation from important stakeholders.”
Lack of diversity was brought up several times by David Couchman in task force meetings and by residents at the public input events. Many of the members were developers and all appeared to be white. Owners and tenants of local apartment complexes had no direct representation.
In another conflict about the north end’s future, Mary Hall Freedom House, a nonprofit in a legal battle over its transitional housing condos, has sued the city, saying it’s trying to push out minorities and disabled people.