A Sandy Springs couple and their secret concept for a new mixed-income community have been a strong influence on the city’s affordable housing and north end redevelopment policy discussions for at least two years, according to internal city emails. Yet the general public has been unaware of their recommendations and plans, as they repeatedly insisted on secrecy – largely agreed to by city officials – to avoid “scrutiny,” “resistance” and “objections.”

David Couchman, Melanie Noble-Couchman and their philanthropic Noble-Couchman Foundation have not been the only voices in city policy discussions, and not every city official is sold on their vision. But, the emails show, their behind-the-scenes access and influence have been significant in shaping the new “Next Ten” planning and zoning policies, and in Mayor Rusty Paul’s plan for an affordable housing task force set to launch this year.

The general area eyed by the Couchmans in their concept for a large-scale, mixed-income, mixed-use redevelopment to ensure affordable housing in the city’s north end. The area along the eastern side of Roswell Road just south of the Chattahoochee River. (Google Earth)

Last year, the Couchmans and three high-profile affordable housing development organizations privately presented the mayor and City Council members with a redevelopment concept for some of the north end’s older apartment complexes, a large-scale idea featuring mixed-income housing and a community center, that one official likens to Atlanta’s East Lake. The Couchmans successfully pushed for “affordable” and “workforce” housing language to remain in the city’s new Comprehensive Land-Use Plan for that area to “sell” their concept.

At one point, a top city planning official was working directly with the Couchmans on a multi-year program of both policy and persuasion, aiming partly to educate the Sandy Springs public about the need for affordable housing. More recently, Paul allowed the Couchmans to review and comment on a draft policy document called “Realizing the Dream,” apparently intended to guide the upcoming task force, which even some fellow city officials have not seen.

A small “committee” of residents and business or nonprofit leaders has been working with the Couchmans on the “River Springs Initiative,” the north end redevelopment concept. Some of the members’ other advocacy efforts in the past year appear in a new light when their involvement in the Couchmans’ work is known. Among them are Betty Klein, who was involved in a new group pushing for a new North Springs Charter High School building in the general area, and Christine Bruno of the Huntcliff Homes Association, who spoke in favor of more affordable housing at a city Planning Commission meeting and whose organization was involved in the community’s rejection of a Lidl grocery store proposed for a shopping center within the area targeted by the Couchmans’ proposal. Neither Klein nor Bruno responded to a request for comments.

The Couchmans are well-regarded leaders of the city’s philanthropic community. Their foundation, established in 2003, played a key role in reviving the nonprofit now known as the Sandy Springs Education Force, which bolsters local school programs. In 2011, the city honored Melanie Noble-Couchman with its Humanitarian Award.

Melanie Noble-Couchman, above, has been working with husband David Couchman and their Noble-Couchman Foundation on city affordable housing advocacy. (File)

The Couchmans declined to answer questions for this article and urged that their efforts remain secret for now. Paul, through a city spokesperson, declined to be interviewed, citing the ongoing policy formulation and his intent to discuss it at the Jan. 23 City Council retreat.

Former City Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, one of the few officials or residents involved who agreed to speak in detail, said the mayor and council’s work with the Couchmans is not fundamentally different from how they take input from residents on many other issues prior to a public vetting of formal proposals. Sterling said he was not sworn to secrecy on the subject. But, he acknowledged, their particular efforts were kept under wraps, partly due to city leaders’ own lack of consensus on the complex issue of affordable housing, and partly due to the highly sensitive local politics.

“I think oftentimes when people hear ‘affordable housing’ … they think ‘low-income housing.’ And that by itself is scary to some people,” said Sterling. The city was interested in “getting its ducks in a row” before any general public discussion, he said, because coming out with an infeasible or unpolished affordability program or policy could “poison the well.”

“I don’t view it as underhandedly secret, but it wasn’t ripe,” Sterling said of the Couchmans’ efforts, “and this is the thing where [the subject] is delicate, because it deals with issues of poverty, which in some people’s minds equals race.”

The Reporter discovered the Couchmans’ advocacy efforts after conducting an open records request for dozens of emails about city affordable housing policy discussions for the entire year of 2017 from the accounts of Paul, City Manager John McDonough and Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert. In light of the emails, several public comments by Paul and former area City Councilmember Ken Dishman that sounded like general comments about gathering public input, or expressions of their own ideas, were actually hints of the Couchmans’ specific behind-the-scenes advocacy.

In April 2017, the Reporter asked Paul and Dishman to provide more details about private affordable housing discussions the mayor had mentioned at a council meeting. The emails show that Dishman drafted a written response that he gave to three people for review: Paul, city Communications Director Sharon Kraun – and Melanie Noble-Couchman, who urged secrecy unless the mayor said otherwise.

“[M]y fear is that by addressing [the Reporter’s] question, we could begin to stir up resistance or generate more questions before we have a plan in place to educate the staff, council and residents and handle objections,” Noble-Couchman wrote, urging “an approach that ‘the less we say the better.’”

The final responses from Paul and Dishman did not mention the Couchmans or their redevelopment concept.

North end redevelopment concept

Redevelopment of several older shopping centers and apartment complexes along northern Roswell Road has long been a desire of city leaders, and it gained momentum in the “Next Ten” planning. That priority also made the area the focus of the housing affordability theme that rose rapidly on the city’s agenda.

While many Sandy Springs residents weighed in with a wide variety of opinions during the “Next Ten,” only a handful of select insiders knew about the Couchmans’ emerging concept for a mixed-income redevelopment in the north end and that it was affecting city officials’ thinking.

Part of an email from the Couchmans about a June 6, 2017 private City Hall meeting where their concept for north end redevelopment was presented to the mayor, City Council and certain city officials.

The concept appears to remain in a conceptual state and it is unclear what level of detail it has reached. The emails describe it as focused on the area bounded by Roswell Road, Dunwoody Place, Roberts Drive and North River Parkway, which currently includes apartment complexes, the North River Shopping Center and the Sandy Springs Charter Middle School. It broadly involves replacing two to three apartment complexes with several forms of rental and ownership housing affordable to a full range of incomes. A new community center or recreation center is also proposed, along with some element of “strong public education,” apparently a reference to connecting with a school.

The Couchmans describe the concept in one email as “financially feasible to address the preservation of affordable housing” and “needed to create a full transformation with far reaching results, for the north end of Sandy Springs.” The mixed-income, mixed-use approach also “ensures stability for decades to come,” the email says.

At least three organizations worked on the concept. One is Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit consulting firm whose executive board chair is former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. Purpose Built Communities came out of the 1990s revitalization project of East Lake, which has become something of a national model. The consultant advocates a neighborhood-based model of redevelopment with mixed-income housing, schools and an in-house nonprofit to oversee its direction. That model appears to be the basis for the Couchmans’ concept.

Other organizations involved include Tapestry Development Group, a Decatur-based affordable rental housing firm, and the Southeast office of Enterprise Community Partners, which provides technical assistance on affordable housing creation and preservation.

All three organizations either did not respond to questions for this article or declined to comment on the record.

The concept was researched and developed by a “committee” the Couchmans assembled that first met “formally” in April 2016 at Lost Corner Preserve and informally for at least three months before then, according to the emails.

Most of the members have participated in organizations, particularly Leadership Sandy Springs, that are well-connected politically with the city. Members named in a May 2017 email from the Couchmans include: Bruno, Klein; Tamara Carrera, the CEO of the nonprofit Community Assistance Center; Sherwin Nelson Clemons; Pam Jones; Gene and Carolyn Jordan; Robert Levinson; and Peggy Stapleton.

On June 6, 2017, the committee and the three consulting organizations held a presentation at City Hall for the mayor, City Council members and city staff about the concept. The presentation was split into two back-to-back meetings, each attended by three of the six council members, specifically to avoid forming a quorum.

Otherwise, as the Couchmans wrote in an email invitation, “to include the other councilmen it would have to be a public meeting, and we are not ready for a public meeting.”

That tactic, often used by the council to receive city staff briefings, is legal under Georgia Open Meeting Act law, according to David E. Hudson, an attorney who serves on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Former Councilmember Sterling and City Councilmember John Paulson said they do not recall details of the presentations, except that they involved pro formas – general feasibility studies – of a couple of versions of the redevelopment.

Reaction seems to have varied; Paulson called it “just one way, one path” on a complex issue, while Sterling said it “could be transformative, especially if it can be something we can replicate” rather than just do as a “one-shot wonder.”

“The Couchmans have an approach for a specific area. But policy isn’t for 20 acres and one property,” Sterling said.

‘Next Ten’ influence

As the city began grappling with housing affordability issues in its “Next Ten” planning process, the emails show, the Couchmans played a crucial advocacy role. They did not dictate policy, but successfully expanded the range and scope of policy discussions amid the city’s internal dissents and discussions.

“Affordable” and “workforce” housing are fixed in the city’s Comprehensive Plan vision for the northern Roswell Road corridor because the Couchmans made a last-minute demand for that language, after public meetings were done and a final draft was approved by the City Council, according to the emails.

The “Next Ten” planning process, which began in 2015, had other influential voices on housing affordability. Among the biggest was Rhodeside & Harwell, the consulting team leading the planning process, which pushed the concept of the “missing middle” – the idea that the city’s biggest housing problem is a lack of middle-class ownership units.

But the Couchmans were key voices in pressing for deeper affordability and rental housing as part of their emerging mixed-income concept for the north end. By December 2015, they were closely involved in the “Next Ten” planning, meeting privately with city staff, elected officials and Rhodeside & Harwell consultants.

The emails show that the Couchmans believed they had official city support for their mixed-income vision, and with good reason. In early 2016, the Couchmans said in emails, they were contacted by Michelle Alexander, then the city’s Community Development director, with an offer to work with them on a long-range affordable housing policy and a program of educating the city’s general public about the need for such housing.

During that same “Next Ten” process, Alexander got the mayor and council’s blessing to hold an expanded series of public meetings on the topic of affordable housing as part of a federal Community Development Block Grant program whose funds are currently spent solely on sidewalks. But the Couchmans and their north end concept were not mentioned publicly as a factor in that outreach. Alexander has since left the city job and it is unclear whether her program continues.

When the Comprehensive Plan’s final draft was issued in late 2016, the Couchmans were surprised to see the “Small Area Plan” for their north end area spoke only of middle-income ownership housing. The emails show them complaining to city officials about feeling betrayed after Dishman, the former city councilmember, told them the council had decided on the middle-income ownership focus.

The Couchmans pushed back, saying that the Comprehensive Plan needed to include “buzzwords” like “affordable,” “workforce” and “inclusionary zoning” for their mixed-income north end concept to proceed.

In a Dec. 20, 2016 email to Mayor Rusty Paul, the Couchmans complained about the final draft of the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan not including their affordability concepts.

“Many philanthropic organizations and individuals have said that we are being ‘naïve’ if we think that Sandy Springs could get behind this effort,” the Couchmans wrote in one email to Paul. “In the past year we have reassured them of the city’s commitment to this goal based on all of our conversations.”

“We will not go against what the council and community wants,” they wrote later in the email. “We expect some resistance, but felt assured after our repeated conversations with you and other council members, that we were moving the same direction and that our mutual efforts would be successful in transforming the north end, and that we would pioneer a new model to addressing the missing middle [lack of middle-class housing] dilemma that is surfacing all over the country.”

Former City Councilmember Ken Dishman.

Dishman agreed and asked Tolbert, the assistant city manager, to insert language to address their concern that the Comprehensive Plan “does not provide what they need to in order to go out and ‘sell’ their redevelopment concept, which centers on affordable housing and workforce housing.” That language was added sometime before the council adopted the Comprehensive Plan in a largely technical vote without further community meetings.

Dishman declined to comment on the specifics of his discussions with Couchmans for this article, saying broadly that he often met privately with residents on various topics, and deferring to the current councilmembers on the ongoing policy discussions.

The Comprehensive Plan was the basis for the new Development Code, which formalizes a basic affordable housing incentive policy that, officials say, is just the beginning of a broader policy to be formulated by the mayor’s task force. In various drafts of the Development Code last year, affordability policies changed significantly for reasons that remain largely unexplained. The emails do not give much more detail about that process.

But they do show that in April 2017, the Couchmans contacted Paul to request a meeting with Lee Einsweiler, the consultant writing the Development Code, after media reports about a draft that contained an inclusionary zoning policy focused on middle-income households. The Couchmans said such a policy would not help with government funding of their north end redevelopment concept. The policy idea was criticized by some members of the public in community meetings as well and was later withdrawn.

‘Realizing the Dream’ and task force

As the city affordable housing policy discussion continues, the emails indicate Paul is taking the lead, claiming credit for unilateral policy changes – including killing the inclusionary zoning proposal – and forming the upcoming task force with sporadic input from other city officials.

Mayor Rusty Paul.

The emails also show that Paul’s ideas for the task force are truly works in progress, sometimes changing in scope and timing. And over the “Next Ten” planning period and into this month, Paul’s public statements on affordable housing have shifted, from an early focus on the “missing middle” to today’s broader comments including lower-income affordability. Paul has had many sources of input and his own experience – he once served in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development – but his shift in language parallels the Couchmans’ advocacy and vision.

“For the past year I have been working with the Noble-Couchman Foundation on an affordable housing strategy,” Paul wrote in September 2017 to a resident who had emailed him with a plea for the city to retain affordable housing for seniors and people with disabilities. It is the sole instance in the emails or Paul’s previous public comments where he revealed the Couchmans’ work to a member of the general public, and he provided no additional detail or explanation.

Paul is forming the task force himself with no formal nomination process. The Couchmans are among those offering candidates behind the scenes, including two involved in their north end concept: an official from Community Enterprise Partners and Carrera, the Community Assistance Center’s CEO. Paul replied that he might consider them in consultant roles.

The Couchmans praise Paul’s “Realizing the Dream” document in part of an Aug. 22, 2017 email.

Paul also provided the Couchmans with a draft of his “Realizing the Dream” document. The document does not appear in the emails and its details and purpose are not fully clear. But it appears to be intended to inform the task force’s policy goals and is described as an update of something Paul wrote after winning the mayoral office in 2013. References to its contents in the emails indicate it is similar to the concepts of the Couchmans and Purpose Built Communities, including aspects of schooling, economic mobility and home ownership. In one email, Melanie Noble-Couchman says she and her husband agree with its concept to “transition the working class to financial stability and home ownership.”

“We have read your Draft of [the] Affordable Housing Task Force and we are inspired, motivated, and excited … but scared to death! Your draft is a huge undertaking,” Melanie Noble-Couchman wrote to Paul in August 2017 about the draft document.

“It is well-said, and a wonderful task that needs to be completed. And, we are looking forward to working with you on making it a reality,” commented David Couchman. He also made formatting and editorial suggestions, saying Paul should replace the terms “middle class” and “workforce” with “mixed income” and “essential.”

The emails indicate that Paul has shown “Realizing the Dream” to some city officials, including McDonough and Tolbert, but not to all. When Sterling, who just left the council last month, was asked about the document, he replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”