Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
All around this majority-black community, the region’s cityhood movement has expanded. Now South DeKalb residents are faced with the question: Should they form a new city too?
DEKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA—To get to Sugar Creek Golf Course Park in South DeKalb County, Georgia, near Atlanta, you have to brave a drive down a gravelly road walled on both sides by a mess of overgrown weeds, brush, and a punishment of haggard woodlands. The passageway opens into a parking lot whose surface has seen better Saturday afternoons. Holding court is a small congregation of men huddled near a minivan, eating from Chinese take-out cartons, sipping beers, almost as if they were tail-gating. But it was clear from the scraggly conditions of the park that no games would be played there anytime soon.
Carl Griffin rolled his car window down. “Hey guys, what’s the course looking like?” he asked the men.
“Like shit,” responded what looked like the eldest among the crew, drawing laughter all around.
This was just the opening Griffin and passenger Kathryn Rice needed to pitch their proposal. The county has neglected this golf park, they say, and they have a solution: The 120-plus acres of unincorporated South DeKalb should officially incorporate into a new city called Greenhaven so they can make improvements to places like this on their own.
“The reason that you want to vote [on this] is because we want to devote more money to things that are in South DeKalb, that's the bottom line,” Rice says to the men.
A few of them laugh, with one of them shouting out, “That’ll never happen!”
“If we formed a city, my brother,” said Rice, “then it is possible that it could happen.”
The possibility of that happening this year is slim. At the time of their conversation, Rice’s team was relying on the hopes that their bill, HB 644, would pass through Georgia’s House of Representatives by a February 28 deadline, so they could have a chance at city building. It didn’t. The legislator who introduced the Greenhaven bill ended up abandoning the bill, under pressure from those who oppose starting a new city, which essentially killed it for this legislative session. (Read “The Quest for a New Black City in Georgia” for more background on this.)
But the question remains for residents who have been clashing for four years over creating a new city: Should it happen at all? The Greenhaven proposal has been the greatest test yet to a cityhood movement that has been spreading across the Atlanta area: Since 2005, at least ten cities have formed in the region, in a movement that could be described as a series of Brexits. Is cityhood the panacea that unincorporated and financially disadvantaged communities have been searching for? And if it is, what will it take to win local residents’ confidence that it could work?
Proponents of Greenhaven, led by Rice, believe achieving cityhood is South DeKalb’s last chance for survival, after being starved for economic resources for decades by the county. Greenhaven’s opponents—and there are many—believe the entire Greenhaven proposition is a ruse that would only further ruin South DeKalb’s economic prospects. For them, joining the cityhood movement is not the answer, but South DeKalb is running out of solutions, and time and land are not on their side.
The Greenhaven proposal was an effort four years in the making, to give the unincorporated communities the same opportunity that people in other parts of the county have been given, in starting their own cities: Dunwoody, incorporated in 2008, Brookhaven, in 2012, Tucker, in 2015, and most recently, Stonecrest, which incorporated last year. All of those places divorced from DeKalb County in no small part because of the county government’s history of corruption. But it can’t be ignored that except for Stonecrest, those new cities formed in the northern parts of DeKalb County, where white families fled to from the city of Atlanta in the 1960s, when the leadership of the City Too Busy to Hate began turning too black.
In 2017, Stonecrest became the first of those cities to form in the southern stretches of DeKalb County, where the bulk of the county’s African Americans live. It was also the first self-started, majority-black city created in Georgia since Reconstruction—showing that there is some appetite for cityhood in South DeKalb. The Greenhaven team was hoping to be the next in line for South DeKalb. Close to 300,000 residents would be captured in this new city plan, 87 percent of whom would be African Americans. This would make it the second largest city in Georgia, and its newest “Chocolate City,” replacing the neighboring city of Atlanta.
The modern cityhood movement of metro Atlanta began in 2005 when Sandy Springs municipalized in Fulton County, just above Atlanta. That movement has accelerated ever since, with clusters of new cities popping up all over metro Atlanta, most often from predominantly white neighborhoods. According to state Representative Vernon Jones, the former CEO of DeKalb County, this movement began when the county’s leadership was no longer white. Jones was DeKalb County’s first African-American CEO, serving from 2001 to 2008, which was when the county’s first new city of this era, Dunwoody, was formed.
“You start to see the beginning of white pockets of new government being created,” says Jones. “At this point I'm the county executive and the [DeKalb County] board of commissioners has changed from majority white, to majority black, four-to-three. That was the beginning of creating these new white cities just so they could take control back over.”
A Republican takeover of both chambers of the Georgia legislature in 2004 helped ease the path towards cityhood, which white enclaves such as Sandy Springs had been fighting for for years. Before this point Democrats had opposed allowing unincorporated parts of the metro region to municipalize. The Republican-led legislature also changed the rules to make it easier for cities to form without county approval, Jones says.
The dividing line
The unofficial line separating South DeKalb from the rest of the county is Memorial Drive, which runs from downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain. Below that line is where the great majority of the county’s African-American population lives; above it is where the cluster of predominantly white cities in the county are located. The bulk of economic development also exists north of that line, much of it in the cities that have formed since 2005. In fact, before the city of Dunwoody formed in 2008, its proposal was controversial because of the level of commercial real estate it would extract from the county. Much of that real estate is derived from the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts in north and central DeKalb where development is happening at the county’s fastest clip. Here’s a glimpse of what exists in those districts today:
In 2007, a group from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University raised concerns that if Dunwoody formed, it would take a considerable amount of tax revenue from the county. It cautioned that the rest of unincorporated DeKalb would suffer property assessment devaluations, dropping by as much as 14 percent, which would increase the tax burden of these areas. Meanwhile, the people of Dunwoody would make out like fat cats, reads a report from the research group: Residents’ average assessment values would increase by between 68 and 133 percent.
As other cities followed Dunwoody’s lead, they continued to dwindle DeKalb County’s tax base, and the burden of paying for county-provided services has steadily increased for those left behind in the unincorporated areas as a result. These encumbrances are even more pronounced in South DeKalb where property values are already depressed, despite the range of incomes of people living there.
There are some low-income pockets in South DeKalb, but this area is mostly upper middle class, home to some of the most affluent African Americans in the region. Sub-divisions and mega-divisions flush with 4,000 square-foot homes, man-made lakes, and golf courses abound in these neighborhoods. But when you look at the prices of the homes, they run often between $150,000 and $200,000. Meanwhile, the same sized homes with the same amenities in Dunwoody have an average home listing price of $450,000. Emily Badger investigated the wealth and property value disparities between north and south Dekalb in a May 2016 article for The Washington Post and found that much of the problem is owed to discriminatory lending practices. Writes Badger:
In neighborhoods such as these in South DeKalb, a struggling housing market takes on a life of its own: As home values fall, so do property tax dollars that fund schools and public services. As the quality of those services declines, a community becomes less desirable, further yanking down property values.
Now in DeKalb County, the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods have already decamped, leaving the rest of the county holding the bag, and with less tax revenue to pay for it. Atlanta is already one of the most racially segregated metros in the U.S., and that segregation is what makes it possible for “white” cities to form, especially in the suburbs.
So what’s the unincorporated area to do? To Rice and her supporters, the answer to cityhood is cityhood. Rice has now been denied four times in her quest to realize the Greenhaven cityhood vision, though. She admits that she’s not great at playing politics—she ran unsuccessfully for DeKalb County Commision in 2010 and in 2015. Her idea all along has been to focus on revitalizing South DeKalb through wealth-building and economic development. This is where her expertise lies. Rice holds degrees from Harvard, Georgia Tech, and Georgia State University in urban affairs, public administration and economic development. As a research scholar, she has published several studies on the impacts of municipalization, particularly for communities of color.
Rice believes Greenhaven’s large size would allow it to collect as much tax revenue as possible without raising property taxes, because the burden would be spread across a wider pool of taxpayers. A feasibility study conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia says that Greenhaven could expect to bring a surplus of $27 million in its first year, which Rice said would be reinvested back into Greenhaven to keep taxes low, and to incentivize companies to locate there. A group of entrepreneurs has already assembled under the name the Greenhaven Business Alliance to lead the economic planning. This alliance is also plotting how to develop better public transit—another service in woeful supply in DeKalb County.
“For us it is also about economic development which is really a game of money and wealth, and we are on the very, very weak side of wealth,” says Rice. “[Cityhood] is actually the best tool that we have to position ourselves, because it positions people to gain wealth and that is why cityhood is something we should have started before almost any other city.”
But Coleman Allums, who criticized the city movement in a blog for Atlanta Studies, laments that “everyone has accepted the terms of debate,” as set by those who started the cityhood project for racially exclusive reasons. It’s the whole you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house-ethos of Audre Lourde.
“Everyone has accepted that these are colorblind projects that only have to do with economics and local control, and thus cannot in their nature be racist—I fundamentally reject that,” says Allums. “The actual fundamental problem is there is a reason that places like Stonecrest and Greenhaven are historically underdeveloped, and by accepting the present-day politics of the cityhood movement since 2005, we cede a lot of ground that needs to be debated and contested, in a way that the economism of the cityhood movement does not functionally allow for.”
Then there are those who oppose Greenhaven cityhood on practical grounds. Some say it won’t bring in business. Ed Williams, the head of the group Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb, says that economic development won’t appear just because a city forms. He says because of “Black Belt economics,” no major businesses will come to an area with such a large African-American population.
“Our area was developed as a residential community,” says Williams. “In fact, we are different than the north because the north has more commercial areas and business properties.”
This is the Greenhaven quagmire: They want to form a city specifically because South DeKalb has been overlooked in the county’s economic agenda; yet, it is this very paucity of commercial enterprise that makes opponents believe that Greenhaven would fail as a city project. But last February, Stonecrest landed a project to create a 200-acre sports-entertainment complex that is projected to bring 2,000 jobs and have a $200 million impact. Joining the cityhood movement did not forestall that. Rice would love to land a similar project, but right now South DeKalb would do good just to get its golf course fixed.
A question of property value
The threat of depressed property values is perhaps the most prevalent fear among those who oppose the Greenhaven city proposal. Kevin Polite, who lives and runs a real estate business in South DeKalb, is convinced that this would be a dire consequence of municipalizing. He’s a member of the group Neighbors Against Greenhaven and he says 80 percent of his properties lie within the proposed new city’s footprint.
“My retirement money is dependent upon those areas doing well, and as a small black business owner, if I thought Greenhaven would help increase property values, I would be all over it,” says Polite. “But I think it will have a horrible effect on real estate and that quite frankly is my number one concern. If this had been approved, the next six months in real estate would be on hold, because there would be a sense of uncertainty so sales would slow down.”
Ari Meier, who lives in South DeKalb and runs a business there called Digidence Social Media Marketing, says concerns about declining property values are actually about a false perception of excessive crime in this part of the county.
“What this boils down to is that if Greenhaven had come about, those people who oppose it are just those who don’t want to have an association with a city,” says Meier. “They think it will lump everyone in one category and then property values will suffer, because if the news reports about a crime in Greenhaven, if you live in a nicer part of the county, then you will be lumped in with the people who live in, say Glenwood.”
What does happen to property values and taxes when a place becomes a city? It’s impossible to draw general conclusions, because no city has been built of Greenhaven’s scale or size. But Russell M. Smith, a geography professor at Winston-Salem State University, has found nothing in his research on new cities that suggests property values would be harmed as a result of municipalization.
“Cities in general tend to have higher property values than unincorporated areas due to the addition of services,” says Smith. “Some of my more recent research looking into majority-minority communities and what’s happened to tax values when they’ve incorporated shows that in general they’ve been on an upswing.”
Smith and his colleague Leora Waldner, a political science professor at Troy University in Alabama (Smith and Waldner have both worked with Rice on new city studies), are developing a body of scholarship on new cities where whites are minorities. She and Smith have identified 44 such municipalities that formed between 1990 and 2010, all of which today are economically thriving, according to their research. They are currently examining four cities with the lowest average household incomes from that cohort and have found that even they are posting both residential and economic growth.
“No one can make a blanket statement about what happens to property values, or to taxes, in new cities of color,” says Waldner. “We simply don’t know. But of the new cities I’ve studied, especially the ones that we’re concentrating on now that are very low-income—even they successfully attracted economic development. Miami Gardens had a reputation for high crime, so they probably had to work harder for the Applebees and the Wal-Mart, but they got it.”
Waldner and Smith did find that property values dropped in some majority-black cities, but those declines came as a result of the recent recession and housing crisis. Those crashes hit black households much worse than white households and this helps explain why property values in South DeKalb are so much lower than their northern counterparts. Homeownership for black families in the Atlanta metro region has continued to decline since the housing crisis, and lags well behind white homeownership rates, according to a recent study from the Urban Institute.
This is how racism functions: It devalues life based on skin color, and the cityhood movement is not exempt from addressing this problem, especially when racism played a role in birthing it. The areas of North DeKalb that happened to have been formed from the whiter parts of the county deny that racism had anything to do with it. As reported by The Atlantic’s Sam Rosen’s last year, residents there insist they municipalized to sever ties with a corrupt county government. That explanation has merit, but it’s not the full explanation.
“I don’t know if intent matters,” says Waldner, “Because there is a racial impact, in terms of who gets left behind, it doesn’t matter if [the cityhood movement] came with a racial motive or not. In metropolitan areas, new cities hurt low-income and minority communities left behind in the unincorporated county, regardless of why those new cities formed.”
The right to vote
A few days after Rice’s mini-townhall with the men at Sugar Creek Golf Course, she found herself standing before yet another group of men and women trying to convince them of Greenhaven’s viability. This group was the government affairs committee of the state House of Representatives who were scheduled to vote on Greenhaven’s bill, HB 644. The vote was not to determine whether Greenhaven could become a city. What the legislature was voting on was whether a ballot initiative would be created to allow the people who live within the proposed new city’s boundaries to vote on that themselves. Rice was the first to testify, and she approached the mic a bit flustered, not just because she only had 30 seconds to give her spiel, but also because the sponsor of her bill, Representative Billy Mitchell, was nowhere to be found.
“I want to make one key point, which is that I believe we have the right to vote,” said Rice. “We have met all of the same criteria as each of the cities that you have approved since 2000. We are the only people in DeKalb County who have not had one chance to vote on cityhood.”
The line behind her was flush with Greenhaven opponents, verklempt and armed with a litany of reasons why HB 644 didn’t deserve to pass. Their main concerns: The proposed footprint is too large, its boundaries are unclear, taxes and utility bills would go up if Greenhaven was formed, and their property values would drop.
“The civil rights that are going to be violated here is [for] the ones who own property here in South Dekalb,” said Williams when he testified. “More important than voting is the right for you as a property owner and as a resident of DeKalb County to have your voice heard before a vote even takes place.”
Dekalb County Commission staff members showed up to strike a middle ground, asking to table the Greenhaven bill until they could finish a study on the impact of the cityhood movement on the county. The committee chairman, Representative Ed Rynders, a Republican, explained that the bill deserved a hearing because Greenhaven met the “minimum technical requirements”—it has an organization behind it, a feasibility study, a city charter, and has selected at least three services to take on from the county. He otherwise wasn’t in a position, he explained, to “pick winners and losers” in terms of who could and couldn’t start a city—that’s what the ballot referendum is for, should the bill pass, so the people could determine that for themselves.
“So you would pass any cityhood bill that met the minimum requirements?” asked a woman from the audience, to which Rynder replied, “Yes, m’am.”
“That’s scary,” she said.
Greenhaven’s bill passed out of the committee, which surprised everyone, including its sponsor, Mitchell, which is why he said he personally went to the House rules committee to make sure that it didn’t go any further. When the Greenhaven bill died as a result, the Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb put out a press release that danced on its grave.
“We are extremely pleased that the Greenhaven cityhood bill HB644 did not make it out of the Georgia House of Representatives,” read the release. “I do not want to trade our suburb communities for an urban jungle, and I do not want more crime, corruption, and government.”
Mitchell said the reason he withdrew the bill was because he heard that other members of the committee were planning to add some amendments that would have soured the Greenhaven proposal. One of those amendments would have slashed Greenhaven officials’ salaries so that the mayor would have made $16,000.
“This was going to be the second-largest city in the state, but yet they set the salary so low that virtually no one of any substance could serve,” said Mitchell. “None of those conditions were ever put on any other city in the north or any other area of Dekalb. I could not support it any longer.”
But Mitchell didn’t bother to tell Rice about his change of heart, so she and Greenhaven’s supporters spent the day at the capitol waiting for passage of a bill that had been deleted.
This has not deterred Rice. Her team is currently strategizing around how to have their bill reintroduced in the next legislative session. They are not giving up on what they consider their right to vote on this matter.
It should be noted that none of the House members who actually represent DeKalb County support the Greenhaven plan. Rice says this is because no one from the DeKalb delegation has given her a chance to present their full proposal to them. It did not help her case, though, that the bill cleared the government affairs committee earlier that day, absent its sponsor, because of the intervention of the chairman Rynders, a white Republican. The city of Stonecrest also relied upon help from white Republicans to pass. But this kind of Republican involvement has only raised the suspicions of Greenhaven’s detractors, given DeKalb County is majority Democrat.
“The Democrats should have taken it up,” says Rice. “Yes, Republicans are pro-cityhood, and pro self-determination … and that's what we're after: self determination, economic empowerment, and improving and bettering our lives. But again, all we're asking for is the right to have the people of South Dekalb vote on this matter.”