The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ambitious plans to combat affordability crisis draw criticism

Tom Hamm, a project supervisor with Walton Communities, holds blueprints for a construction site for affordable housing near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles/For The Washington Post)
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Meshell North is stuck.

A lifelong Atlanta resident, information technology worker and grandmother of four, North resides in an apartment on the city’s northwest side. She’d like to move into a house, but the prices stand out of her reach.

“I can’t afford to move out,” said North, who rented a house before the Great Recession and then was forced to leave when its owner entered foreclosure. “I’ve been looking for houses to rent, and there are so many scams out there. The houses you do see ask an arm and a leg for a garage. It’s crazy out there.”

As in many other cities across the nation, Atlanta’s housing costs are rising fast, so much so that many middle- and lower-income residents are forced to leave because they can’t keep up with them. The problem has reached such a crisis level here that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) pledged $1 billion toward creating or preserving 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026, with half the money from public funds and half from private.

Bottoms isn’t alone.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) issued an aggressive promise for her tenure — 36,000 new units by 2025, 12,000 of them affordable. She challenged her counterparts in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia to build 240,000 more over the same time frame.

In 2017, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (D) set a goal to build 25,000 new homes by 2023, 10,000 of them rent-subsidized, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) aims to create or preserve 300,000 affordable units by 2026.

Yet the ambitious plans from coast to coast are facing mounting criticism. Some housing advocates assert that officials in the cities don’t fully grasp the scope of the problem and aren’t moving quickly enough to address it.

And with the mayors offering little specifics on how they would generate the revenue to finance their goals, other experts say they worry that the numbers and time frame put forward may be empty promises.

Atlanta’s plan “talks about coming up with new revenue sources but doesn’t name them or put a dollar figure on them,” said Dan Immergluck, a professor in the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “There’s not a commitment for new city money.”

He urges Atlanta to take bolder and more specific actions, including approving $250 million in bonds, dedicating hotel/motel taxes toward affordable housing and raising property taxes.

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Rent-burdened in Atlanta

Inland cities in the South like Atlanta have long been viewed as cheaper alternatives to coastal metros. Yet in some Atlanta neighborhoods, more than 72 percent of residents are rent-burdened, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as spending more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing. In 2015, 22 percent of Fulton County’s renting households received an eviction notice.

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City leaders are particularly focused on Atlanta households earning below 60 percent of area median income (AMI), or roughly $28,000 for an individual. Their strategies include building units on publicly owned vacant land, rehabilitating units where people already live, upzoning for duplexes, triplexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs), easing parking requirements and ensuring that landlords accept housing vouchers.

“Our population has increased by over 17 percent, but that’s not enough,” said Terri Lee, Atlanta’s first chief housing officer. She added that growth is great for the city, but not if it means longtime residents must leave. “We have to do things to preserve the opportunity for our existing residents to stay here.”

It’s an ambitious plan, but, to Immergluck, a vague one.

For example, the city hasn’t set yearly increments to reach the 20,000 figure, he said.

While he agrees with Bottoms’s overall goals, Immergluck said he wishes the city were moving faster.

“We’re seven years into this affordable housing crisis,” he said. “These ideas have been floating around for a long time, yet there’s no legislation. Where are the ordinances?”

For residents like North, the need for quick action stands paramount.

Yet North also knows she’s lucky. Rent in her building has risen only incrementally over the years, $50 or so at a time. She makes $18 an hour and knows many friends and relatives, including her daughter and grandchildren, who’ve been forced out of the city by escalating prices. Her daughter’s family slept in a hotel for more than a year before finally settling in a suburban Clayton County duplex. It’s a long drive for them to visit northwest Atlanta, with no yard for the grandchildren to enjoy upon arrival.

“People are coming in and remodeling houses, then putting them back up for sale,” North said, estimating that homes near her unit off Highway 78 rent for at least $950 per month, $1,200 for a nicer place. “If they’re going to do that, they need to provide some kind of program to help people buy those houses and have them be affordable.”

Measuring municipalities

Other cities face their own issues. With four years to go, San Jose stands more than 9,000 units short of reaching 10,000 affordable homes by 2023. The city reports 946 affordable units complete or under construction, with an additional 2,441 in the pipeline.

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One conundrum is that it costs cities more to house very-low-income earners — the lower the income, the more subsidy needed for housing.

Liccardo, the mayor, highlighted progress San Jose is making toward increasing its housing supply. The city issued just 39 ADU permits in 2016, but expects to issue more than 400 this year after loosening restrictions.

San Jose is also exploring new revenue streams, such as a potential property transfer fee for real estate valued at more than $2 million that Liccardo said he hopes will generate between $30 million and $80 million annually for affordable housing. Housing is particularly challenging in his city, Liccardo said, due to the San Francisco Bay Area’s high construction costs — nearly $700,000 per unit for a typical 100-unit apartment complex.

“Do we have the dollars today to get all this done? No, but it’s fair to say there’s a very active effort and a promising effort for us to get this over the goal line, at least in terms of funding,” he said.

From a pure numbers standpoint, the most ambitious mayoral goal is de Blasio’s 300,000 affordable units created or preserved in New York by 2026. It’s a large figure even for a place with more than 8 million residents.

However, the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, a Manhattan-based tenants advocacy group, argues that simply targeting a number may be the wrong approach.

“Any goal that centers around a unit count is concerning,” said Emily Goldstein, the association’s director of organizing and advocacy. “A simple unit count isn’t always the best way to measure whether we’re actually addressing the needs of New Yorkers who are most at risk of displacement or homelessness.”

Goldstein favors metrics such as reductions in homelessness or rent-burdened households, which “get closer to the heart of how people are actually experiencing the affordability crisis.” The vast majority of the need is at the lowest end of the spectrum, she said, which is not where the majority of resources are going.

Instead, as New York and other major cities continue drawing new residents and educated young professionals, Goldstein said it’s important to ensure that longtime residents can choose to stay.

“Folks are being priced out, and they’ve seen their neighborhoods priced out,” she said. “They want to have the option to feel secure in their home and stay in a community where they’ve been for decades. Their church, their doctor, their friends and their family is there. No one should have to pick up and move unless they actually want to go.”

Meanwhile, in Southeast Washington, some residents in the Congress Heights neighborhood aren’t waiting for the city to act. Residents at Savannah Apartments recently joined forces with the Douglass Community Land Trust, which is buying the building with the goal of keeping the 65 units affordable rentals and preventing developers from converting them into condos.

Land trust officials said they hope to use that approach elsewhere in the city.

“I guess we would be the guinea pigs,” Savannah resident Tiffany Jessup told The Washington Post’s Peter Jamison, adding that the move will allow residents to “stay in a place we have called home.”