Atlanta has struggled through the great recession with one of the biggest foreclosure epidemics in the U.S. At its peak, in 2010, there were more than 127,000 foreclosures in the Atlanta metro area. The latest count tallied more than 72,000. Statewide, Georgia has the fourth highest rate of foreclosure in the U.S., according to July figures from RealtyTrac. Empty houses are all over the place. For almost everyone concerned, this is a problem. But for others, the swath of foreclosed homes present an opportunity.
"A lot of us in the beginning had thought 'Ooh, there's a silver lining to this cloud,'" says Ellen Wickersham. She's in charge of parkland acquisition for Invest Atlanta, the city's economic development agency. She and others in her field had assumed that all these empty homes with no owners in sight and prices near the floor were prime park-making ingredients.
It seemed an ideal condition. Wickersham started her job about 9 years ago under the administration of former Mayor Shirley Franklin, who had been vocal about the city's relative lack of park space and its scattered park deserts. The city is in the midst of developing the ambitious BeltLine linear park and transit project, which will greatly increase overall park space in the city. But many areas beyond the BeltLine will remain park poor. Beginning in about 2008, the homes and neighborhoods shaken empty by the foreclosure crisis seemed to be exactly the kind of cheap, easily acquirable land the city could use to fill in some of those holes.
But that's turned out to be almost exactly opposite the case.
"It's been harder. It's just been harder," says Wickersham. "You'd think that more properties would be available, now's a great time to buy. But there's something called 'no free lunch.'"
Wickersham says that this would-be treasure chest of park space has ironically been both created and locked away by the long-lasting complications of the foreclosure process. The problem comes down to paperwork.
She provides a hypothetical example, one that's become all too familiar. "You see that Bank A originally had a loan on the property and they foreclosed, or they went bankrupt, and then another umbrella entity bought that loan, and then somewhere down the line somebody had to foreclose on the property," says Wickersham. "You've got a chain of banks that you can barely track. And it's very difficult on individual parcels to track down anybody at the bank who has the authority to negotiate a sale."
She says the city has sometimes gone as far as hiring private investigators to try to track owners down. "People just drop off the face of the earth," she says.
Wickersham says the city has largely avoided the use of eminent domain to acquire property. Finding space for parkland hasn't been difficult all around. Much of the land being used for the BeltLine is disused industrial land and was relatively easy to acquire. But the city needs parks beyond those industrial areas.
The changing real estate market has caused Wickersham and the other parks officials in Atlanta to think more creatively about how and where to create parks. A guideline requiring parks to be a minimum of two acres in size has been pushed aside as officials try to find new ways of splicing parks into neighborhoods and areas with little open space. The vast amount of empty and foreclosed homes in the metro area didn't turn out to be the parks solution Atlanta needed, but it has at least inspired a fresh approach to the problem.
"We've got a lot of areas around town that are under-parked," Wickersham says. "We've got our work cut out for us."
Image credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters