Fresh from a victory in requiring affordable housing along the BeltLine, Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens is trying to form a multi-city coalition to create a regional – even statewide – housing affordability strategy.
Dickens said he has reached out to leaders of several metro Atlanta cities – including Dunwoody and Sandy Springs – who he had heard are also working on “housing affordability and housing diversity.” And he’s looking even farther afield: “We reached out as far as Augusta, too,” he said.
“I’m interested in working with other cities in the metropolitan area to share best practices in legislation and administration of policies that aid in this effort,” Dickens wrote in a Dec. 7 email to some of those cities. “My hope is that this will assist in building a coalition that allows us to lobby the state of Georgia to support legislation that makes this a priority at the state level as well.”
“The short answer is, nothing really has happened yet,” Dickens said in an interview. But, he said, he has received some early positive responses from several cities and from the Atlanta Regional Commission, which he hopes will help coordinate the multi-city effort.
“ARC will be supporting Andre’s efforts,” confirmed ARC spokesperson Paul Donsky, adding that will “include some staff time and likely some data analysis.”
The idea is to share information and develop what Dickens’ email calls “unity and some uniformity” in regional housing affordability policy.
In Sandy Springs, initial reactions from top planning official Jim Tolbert and other staffers in internal emails obtained through an Open Records Act request were positive, though with the cautions that the city’s own policy is still the works, partly through Mayor Rusty Paul’s forthcoming affordable housing task force.
In Dunwoody, Community Development Director Richard McLeod intended to meet with Dickens recently for a preliminary chat, according to city spokesperson Bob Mullen. That meeting was delayed by the winter weather.
Dickens – who holds one of the council’s citywide at-large seats — emphasized that his policy vision is not just low-income housing.
“It’s not just affordable housing, because some of those communities are going to say, ‘We don’t want no stinking affordable housing,’” Dickens said. “This is about making sure you have diverse housing options for your diverse workforce.”
He noted that corporate executives and attorneys generally make more than teachers and firefighters, “and all those people are great people.” He described his policy focus as “not the stigma” of people “who don’t get up and go to work each day,” but rather addressing “workforce” housing and the broader economic development implications.
“If you don’t have a city that has an adequate plan for your workforce to live in, you’re going to have a lot of [commuter] traffic … You’re going to have a lot of challenges attracting people to work because of the commute to your city,” Dickens said. “And you’re going to have displacement.”
Dickens and many other collaborators spent three years working on an affordable housing strategy around the BeltLine trail, park and transit system that is being built in a ring around Atlanta. Several city housing affordability policies and incentives spun out of that effort. The work culminated last fall with the Atlanta City Council’s passage of a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy for multifamily housing built within a half-mile of the BeltLine. The policy requires a certain amount of units be priced at rates affordable to middle- or moderate-income households.
Under the policy, developers can price 15 percent of units as affordable to households making 80 percent of the area median income; or price 10 percent of the units at 60 percent of AMI; or pay a variable fee into a city fund instead of creating any affordable units.
Atlanta is reportedly the first city in Georgia to adopt an inclusionary zoning policy for private developments, and Dickens calls it a “landmark piece of legislation.” It’s also the starting point of his regional effort. The subject line of his Dec. 7 outreach email was, “Inclusionary Zoning Coalition Building.”
That’s a familiar term in Sandy Springs, where the city briefly included what would have been a landmark inclusionary zoning policy in a draft of its new zoning code early last year before discarding it. But it may not be in other cities, and definitions could vary widely.
Dickens said his regional collaboration idea has two main purposes. “Number one, just a mechanism for sharing,” he said, noting that the BeltLine effort produced three years’ worth of research, both local and nationwide. He wants to share that data with other cities, “so no one in our region has to start from scratch.”
The other purpose is to develop “some consistency in policies.”
“We are one region,” even if cities are “in friendly competition,” Dickens said. “You don’t want to do something in one town that hurts another town.” That could also lessen developers’ ability to play cities off each other, he said: “So if the policies resemble each other, we can eliminate some of this, ‘Well, if you tell me how to do [a development], I’ll just do it up the street.’”
Dickens said he has asked the ARC – a metro Atlanta regional planning coordination organization — to provide “a policy person who may be interested in being the glue that keeps people together” and who could serves as a policy “evaluator.”
Dickens could not immediately provide a complete list of the cities he has contacted, but the partial list also includes Decatur, Doraville, Marietta and Norcross.
One local government Dickens said he believes he did not contact is Brookhaven, because he believed the five-year-old city is so new. He said he was unaware that Brookhaven recently formed and received recommendations from its own affordable housing task force.
Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst recently convened a similar multi-city, regional planning gathering about mass transit along the top-end Perimeter. That meeting spun out of the recently formed Peachtree Gateway Partnership, a four-city planning group, advised by the ARC, which includes Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Chamblee and Doraville.
Update: This story has been updated with comment from the city of Dunwoody and the ARC, and to clarify Dickens’ comments about Brookhaven outreach.