A Housing and Transportation subcommittee of Sandy Springs’ new Diversity and Inclusion Task Force wants every development or redevelopment that requires city approval to undergo a housing affordability impact study.

The subcommittee held its first virtual meeting on March 24, with members saying that they learned that increasing rent costs are causing a big wave of displacement in Sandy Springs’ minority communities, creating an urgency for their work. For that reason and because the city is about to adopt a Transportation Master Plan, they decided to focus on housing first.

The Housing and Transportation subcommittee met virtually on March 24 and noted the pandemic makes engaging local residents even tougher.

“I think it’s going to be really important in our April meeting where it really is, all hands-on deck, as a task force of how can we first ensure that this community can live here and stay here and feel belonging and have that roof over their head,” said Olivia Rocamora, the Spanish Department chair and Spanish Immersion program coordinator at The Weber School.

Recommendations the subcommittee plans to give to the full Task Force include everything from engaging all parts of the community in the discussion to pushing City Council to restart the second phase of its Housing Needs Assessment study so policies enabling affordable housing are developed.

Another action item she suggested was that the city require a housing affordability impact study of an area before its redevelopment.

“I think there needs to be a protocol in place that before there’s a vote ‘yes’, that there is a study of how will that redevelopment impact those people residing in those apartment complexes,” Rocamora said.

The study should determine if the impact was counter to what the city’s trying to do for diversity and inclusion.

“If so, then we need to pull the brakes on that,” she said.

Rocamora said a document referenced by fellow task force member, Rev. Bill Murray, confirmed that the majority of the minority communities in the city live in apartments. A Housing Needs Assessment presented to the City Council in December said only 21% of the non-White population were homeowners and 15% of Hispanic or Latino households owned their homes

“I learned that 85% of the land in Sandy Springs is zoned for single-family homes, and not for apartments,” Rocamora said.

Sandy Springs was mentioned nationally as having some of the worst zoning laws for creating housing affordability, which makes for a challenge, she said.

Redevelopment of aging apartment complexes means displacement of not just residents, but specifically residents of color, she said.

“I call it more of a segregated approach to how we do housing in Sandy Springs where we geographically place affordability in certain pockets but it’s not throughout,” said Nicole Morris, task force member and a professor at Emory University School of Law.

Rocamora said the community members and activists she interviewed told her that the task force needs to identify solutions that do not disenfranchise one group of residents over another.

The Housing Needs Assessment said the lack of affordable housing is displacing lower-income renter households because they can’t afford to live here. Households that spend more than 30% of their annual income on housing costs are considered cost burdened, the study reported. Rent increased 39% across all rental housing types due to both luxury new construction and rent increases in existing buildings. Renter households earning less than $50,000 decreased by $1,800.

“We’re not just talking about service workers and essential industrial workers, we’re talking about teachers, nurses, first responders, etc.,” she said.

Jose Osorio, assistant principal for Lake Forest Elementary School and a task force member, said the school families he speaks to say their rent ranges from $1,200 to $1,800 a month, depending on the apartment complex where they live. Even as an educator, he said, those housing costs would be tough to pay.

Morris said another gap she sees is a lack of African American representation. “I don’t know if we have any grassroots community organizations that are focused specifically on the African American population,” she said. “I think that gap will be a bottleneck for the data that we can collect, as we think about inclusivity and making sure that we have all of the diverse and multicultural groups represented.”

Osorio and Murray said that communication with non-native speakers is important.

“For the engagement pieces, definitely we need to look at translating or interpreting information, as well as always ensuring that if there’s anyone who has questions or comments, we can always have somebody who can interpret or have that information translator for them,” Osorio told Murray, who is the rector of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church.

Task Force Chairman James Bostic, who listened in to the subcommittee’s meeting, told them he liked what he was hearing. He agreed that if they were presenting to Spanish-speaking parents they need someone there who can make the presentation in Spanish and in English.

Murray said the people with whom he discussed these issues wanted to make sure many voices are active in the discussion no matter who the elected officials may be in the future.

“How do we make sure that having those voices becomes a policy and process, not just something that we’re doing right now?” he asked.

Another suggestion by Rocamora was that the city hire someone to exclusively oversee redevelopment to look at it through an equity lens and through a housing affordability perspective at all times.

Rocamora said a low-hanging fruit they can suggest is to pressure the city to approve a follow-up study to the Housing Needs Assessment. She said that Assistant City Manager Kristin Smith told her that phase two would examine how to create policies that distribute housing affordability throughout the city. The plan for the study was introduced to the council in December, but it was suspended in January.

Bostic said he liked the recommendation for more ability to have space for multifamily residences than the city now allows.

“If we want to do something about these issues, we have got to go take action to do something about it. I mean we cannot pretend that we want to do something and then we keep doing the same old same old same old. This is not going to help,” Bostic said.

Jack Murphy, chairman of the North Fulton Improvement Network, told the subcommittee that his organization has a housing group that is working on the same issue and would love to collaborate with them.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.