Crumbling Henderson Place apartments on Irwin Street in Old Fourth Ward will be remodeled into modern affordable housing.

Editor’s Note: Atlanta Intown has partnered with nonprofit journalism organization Atlanta Civic Circle to bring our readers more in-depth coverage about the critical issue of affordable housing in the city.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ 2017 win to claim the city’s chief seat can be attributed, at least in part, to her monumental promise to put $1 billion into affordable housing initiatives before 2026. The goal was to produce and preserve some 20,000 affordable units before the end of her second mayoral term.

Now, though, Bottoms says she won’t be running for reelection. So, what does that mean for her housing affordability crusade? Will candidates echo Bottoms and commit to carrying the torch of her One Atlanta Housing Affordability Action Plan? Or might the mayor-to-be take a new direction? And could pandemic recovery, policing, crime and other hot-button issues overshadow what has long been one of Atlanta’s most pressing matters?
Bottoms putting housing at the forefront of her campaign and championing housing efforts while in office set the tone for her successor, said Sarah Kirsch, executive director of Urban Land Institute Atlanta and member of advocacy group HouseATL.

“Mayor Bottoms set a high bar for commitment to affordable housing, and I do not see how any candidate can turn away from that,” Kirsch said. “There is plenty of room for debate on ‘how,’ but the need for 20,000 units produced and preserved is not going away.”

The coronavirus pandemic has of course exacerbated Atlanta’s already dire housing affordability crisis, reinforcing the idea that “home is literally everything,” Kirsch added. She means a person’s housing situation dictates where they can get jobs, where their kids can go to school and how safe and accommodating their community will be.

Atticus LeBlanc, CEO of affordable housing startup PadSplit, agrees the city’s housing crisis “is only getting worse.” He said “we unquestionably need a leader who can usher in real policy changes” regarding housing and zoning reform.

“The candidates who demonstrate a viable path toward an inclusive future and a history of making measurable progress on housing will have a significant advantage,” LeBlanc continued.

Dan Immergluck, a Georgia State University urban studies professor who’s been critical of Bottoms’ efforts on housing affordability, said the next mayor should stray from the current administration’s habit of “subsidizing large developers and firms moving into the city in a very hot market, when, generally, no such subsidies are needed.”

He’s nodding to projects—many of them luxury developments—in places like Midtown and areas around the Atlanta BeltLine that secure public help “that could have been redirected towards affordable housing purposes.”

Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust, said she’s concerned conversations about crime, policing and the pandemic could distract from crucial discussions about housing affordability, although she, like Kirsch, thinks any candidate worth their salt will be able to address those issues and others from a housing perspective.

“There are going to be a lot of voices in the room who don’t care about housing affordability, but housing affordability is an important lens to view a lot of our challenges,” Rhein said. “Whoever is elected next, if they don’t make [housing] a top priority, they’re out of touch with the city and its people.”

And even if the person who takes the baton from Bottoms comes determined to accomplish the 20,000-unit mission, they’ll need to turn things up a notch, too. Kirsch said Atlanta needs to create 3,000 affordable units annually “just to stop the bleeding and begin to heal the wound” left by decades of inequitable development.

Added Rhein: “It would be great if the [One Atlanta] action plan were bigger and badder and more ambitious,” but the city doesn’t have the time or resources to start from scratch. Bottoms, she said, architected a housing policy framework—creating the chief housing officer post and developing the $1 billion, among other efforts—that tees up the next mayor for further initiatives.

Immergluck added to that notion, saying the upcoming administration needs to better accommodate Atlanta’s ongoing population boom. “The city needs to quit acting as if it is a shrinking city—as if it is 1980—and aggressively work to restructure the housing system, such as working for state legislation to provide much greater tenant protections, revamping zoning to favor affordability and creating a fairer property tax system,” he said.

The candidates who had tossed their hat into mayoral contest ring have touted a focus on housing affordability on their campaigns or in their legislative or professional lives. How they intend to distinguish themselves on this topic, though, remains to be seen.

No doubt, Atlanta’s next mayor will need to confront a laundry list of other issues, but that can’t happen at the expense of housing affordability. Voters are now on the hook to ensure whomever they elect won’t let one of the city’s gravest crises fall by the wayside.

Sean Keenan is the affordable housing reporter for Atlanta Civic Circle. Find him @ThatSeanKeenan.