Freelance writer Benjamin Powers has written for Rolling Stone, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard, among others.
The BeltLine is making the neighborhoods in its path too expensive. Can a proposed inclusive housing bill help?
The area under the Freedom Parkway overpass in Atlanta used to be an open dirt and concrete area just off a dilapidated train track, weeds snaking through cracked wooden sleepers. Like many other parts of this famously sprawling city, it was for many years a little-used negative space that mostly existed outside the reach of authorities or the public view. Now, the underpass hosts a well-paved bike path, a daily stream of riders and strollers, and an outdoor piano with a sign saying it’s for anyone to play—all thanks to the ambitious Atlanta BeltLine.
The $4.8 billion transportation megaproject, due to be completed in 2030, consists of a 22-mile mixed-use pedestrian-transit trail around the perimeter of and throughout the city. The hope is that the line will both help allay the metro’s crushing traffic problems and spur neighborhood revitalization while also making Atlanta greener and more walkable.
But as the BeltLine marches on—and brings development, craft breweries, restaurants, and luxury apartments with it—it’s also raised concerns about displacement of the existing communities along its route. Those fears are well founded, and they echo similar ones in other cities with successful BeltLine-esque projects, such as Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia.
The degree to which the BeltLine is eating away at Atlanta’s affordable housing is the focus of a recent paper, “Sustainable for whom? Green urban development, environmental gentrification, and the Atlanta Beltline,” from Georgia State urban studies professor Daniel Immergluck and Tharunya Balan, a professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech. The authors show how the BeltLine is triggering sharp increases in home values in low-income and largely African-American communities in the southwest segment, the next planned area for the BeltLine to break ground. Neighborhoods such as Adair Park, Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville, and Westview have seen median sale prices jump 68 percent from 2011 to 2015.
“Rapid gentrification, left to its own devices, will drive housing costs up, and for those with low incomes, especially lower-income renters, this is a real burden,” says Immergluck. “Some will likely move to cheaper housing, but this is not without serious costs. Without policies that protect vulnerable renters and homeowners from rapid rent and property tax increases, gentrification comes at their expense. It also means that the benefits of gentrification will flow mostly to more affluent households moving in.”
In short, Immergluck predicts, the runaway success of the BeltLine could be counterbalanced by some stark negatives for Atlanta as a whole: “In the long run, without intervention, it will lead to the economic and possibly racial resegregation of the city.”
On a humid October evening, community members of neighborhoods where the BeltLine will arrive next met at the Families First building in southwest Atlanta, to discuss one possible way to avoid this fate: an inclusive zoning ordinance introduced by Atlanta City Council members Andre Dickens and Michael Julian Bond.
The ordinance moves to revise zoning laws that cover the BeltLine’s path and surrounding area to require any project of more than 10 units to set aside a portion of its units for affordable housing for 20 years. In return, developers receive incentives such as reduced property taxes and reduced parking requirements. The overall goal of the zoning is to increase housing opportunities for working individuals near the BeltLine, particularly with households that have an income at or below 80 percent and 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), according to a city overview of the proposal.
“The BeltLine is becoming increasingly unaffordable for those who serve Atlanta,” Dickens told the crowd. “Teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, and our seniors, among others, all should be able to benefit from the city’s investment in the BeltLine. It’s important the city not lose the diversity in its residents of all income levels.”
Not all residents are convinced that the bill will help, though: They’ve heard these kinds of promises about the BeltLine before. Sheila Kelly, who has lived in the area for several decades, raised concerns over the income brackets the ordinance proposed, which are federally set based on HUD estimates of the Atlanta Metro areas AMI, which is $69,700.
“For a lot of people in this community, the income groups you’re talking about are considered upper middle class here,” she told Dickens. The income brackets she references are, for one person, between about $30,000 and $40,000 for 60 percent and 80 percent of AMI, respectively, according to documents handed out at the meeting. Other attendees nodded in agreement at this.
Kelly also raised the issue of housing for older residents, many of whom earn less than the AMI. Kelly was on the waitlist for senior housing, she said, and while additional communities are under construction, it’s tough for residents to grapple with the fact that they need them now.
Another attendee, Michael Sanders, an office manager at a real estate firm, called the ordinance “a good start—but it’s lacking. Twenty years [when the requirements on developers would end] is not long enough for the rental units to be protected against market rates. The protection should be permanent.” He lives in Grove Park, a neighborhood that’s about two miles away from the BeltLine, but a connection in the new Westside Reservoir Park will bring the project to his front door. “We are already seeing signs of life in long-empty houses and abandoned lots,” Sanders said. “But I know of two people who have already moved due to rising rents.”
In a new report called “BeltLining: Gentrification, Broken Promises, and Hope on Atlanta’s Southside,” the Housing Justice League found that concerns such as these aren’t limited to just one area: The report collects comments from numerous residents of neighborhoods adjacent to the BeltLine corridor who are staring down its prospective construction. One was Nia Brown, a young adult born and raised in Peoplestown who currently lives in subsidized housing:
I just feel like, why should we have to move outside of our community so that they can make our community better? If you’re going to make our community better, make us an example of the community being better! Why should we have to move out for our community to be middle class? Make it middle class with us being here.
Another resident, Cynthia Scott, reported that “buyers are harassing homeowners with unsolicited letters and phone calls in the interest of buying low from current residents and selling high to middle and upper income new residents.”
The effects of the development have been particularly pronounced in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, a rough-edged formerly industrial neighborhood that’s gone heavily upscale since the completion of its stretch of the BeltLine. A large vacant Sears warehouse became Ponce City Market, a $180 million multi-use development that opened in 2014; it includes luxury apartments, a winery, and retailers such as Williams-Sonoma. Nearby is North + Line, a $60 million project housed in a historic mill that was until recently a live music venue; it will include a five-story residential building next to the entrance to the BeltLine’s Eastside trail, plus three stories of parking. Additional residential developments have already been completed. Now, interspersed among more modest houses, new modern ones have sprouted, stretching towards the sky, a mix of metal and glass.
The transformation of the Old Fourth Ward is often touted as an BeltLine success story, but that depends on what your definition of success is.
For Reneatha Eldridge, who teaches for Atlanta Public Schools and grew up in the Old Fourth Ward, the rising rents fueled by the Beltline’s opening forced her to move in 2014. “It was impossible to find affordable housing in the area I had always known as home,” she says. “I couldn’t afford them on a teachers salary.” She now lives in Fairburn, Georgia, about 23 miles away.
“I’ve been praying that I can get to a point where I can afford to come back, because it’s the only home I’ve ever known,” says Eldridge. “I felt it was partly due to the BeltLine and partly to the advancements in the city overall. The city knew people would pay to be in that location and have the experience of the BeltLine in their backyard, basically.”
Eldridge also says she knew quite a few people older people in her neighborhood who felt there were several attempts to force them out of their homes they owned around that time. She hopes that the proposed inclusive zoning ordinance might help ease the dislocation pressure, but remains skeptical. “Too often we have seen ordinances and proposals that sound good, but the execution shows that it had no real significance,” she says. “The ordinance will only achieve its ultimate goal if it is created with a detailed plan to include those who are being excluded from the area now.”
Immergluck thinks the ordinance should help maintain diversity in these neighborhoods, but encourages increased funding for affordable housing—“especially aimed at preserving existing low-cost rental housing where lower-income folks are already living.”
That’s an issue that goes beyond the BeltLine itself. Atlanta also recently released Resilient Atlanta: Actions to Build a More Equitable Future, a report that lays out plans that the city will undertake as as part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative. The report illuminates the city’s lack of affordable housing: “26 percent of Atlanta’s households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs, with much of this located in low-income, low-access neighborhoods across the region,” reads the report. That’s more than one in four people.
The city plans to convene a working group in 2018 to implement a variety of program and policy changes around housing. Some of those efforts include reforming and modernizing building codes, tax codes, and foreclosure policies, supporting rapid response rental assistance (including counseling services for those facing evictions), and developing a tenants rights education campaign on code enforcement, among others.
The policy that has the potential to impact residents concerned about what might happen when the BeltLine comes to their neighborhoods, though, is a planned expansion of the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund, which is philanthropically funded and seeks to mitigate gentrification market forces by covering the costs of qualifying homeowners property tax increases driven by economic development projects.
Balancing the needs of residents and the desires of developers is something many cities have not traditionally been good at. In Atlanta, the effort to rein in the impacts of the BeltLine is still in its early days. After the community meeting, residents lingered in the hall outside, speaking to council members one-on-one, wondering how they fit into what’s coming. That’s a scene that is likely to play out again and again in BeltLine districts as the project proceeds in the years to come.