Livable Buckhead has received an $80,000 grant to study the concept of employer-subsidized affordable housing, an idea that has gained local political support but also raised questions about discriminatory effects.

The nonprofit, which focuses on environmental sustainability and alternative commuting, won the competitive “Community Development Assistance Program” grant in May from the Atlanta Regional Commission. While many apartment complexes offer minor rent breaks for employees of certain companies, the idea of a broader and deeper program is “entirely new for the region,” said Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling.

Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling.

“It has some real promise, but it’s critical to determine whether it is feasible from a legal and policy perspective, and also to gauge whether employers and their employees want it,” said Starling in an email. “Getting this grant allows us to take a close look at those questions and see whether this model can help increase the percentage of people who both live and work in Buckhead.”

The idea was raised in a 2019 housing affordability study commissioned by Livable Buckhead and the Buckhead Community Improvement District. The study framed housing affordability as a traffic congestion problem. More than 90% of people who work in Buckhead’s commercial core do not live in the neighborhood, many because they can’t afford skyrocketing rents and home prices. 

Employer-assisted housing is a broad concept that can range from help with rent or security deposits to company-owned homes. 

The general concept gained support from the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and District 8 City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit. But it remains to be seen whether businesses would want to offer specific programs and whether employees would want their employers involved in their housing decisions. That is one aspect that Livable Buckhead will study, including with some form of public input process.

Another big issue is that deals where landlords give preferential discounts to employees of certain companies may shut other people out of the housing market. Several years ago, the city of Seattle banned such programs as discriminatory violations of fair housing laws amid gentrification controversies. The forthcoming study will look at such programs from “legal and policy perspectives,” according to an ARC press release.

The unprecedented rise of teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic will not alter the basic traffic-reducing goal of the proposal, according to Starling.

“We don’t anticipate making major adjustments to the frame for this project in light of pandemic changes to commute patterns,” she said. “Research shows that most workplaces are bringing employees back to the office at least several days a week, which means traffic is going to continue to be a challenge.”

Livable Buckhead will now spend three to four months creating a scope of work and finding a consultant. The project is expected to wrap up within a year, Starling said.

John Ruch

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