Gentrification and income equity took center stage early at an Atlanta mayoral forum Thursday at Emory University, with candidates pitching similar ideas on how to keep the city affordable.
Construction of micro housing, creating policies to rehabilitate blighted housing stock and launching inclusionary zoning were repeated by several of the hopefuls, as well as looking at the impact of parking and city transportation patterns.
“The next mayor has to bring will and commitment to this issue,” said Peter Aman, former city of Atlanta chief operating officer. “It’s hard and complicated and takes money to fix.”
State Sen. Vincent Fort argued that the problems have to be addressed at all income levels, especially among the elderly. If the city can find $200 million in hotel-motel taxes to dedicate to the construction of a $1.5 billion stadium, “We can find the money to fix up the homes of senior citizens,” he said.
Housing affordability has become a leading issue for the candidates as the race sprints toward the Nov. 7 election. The popularity of Atlanta Beltline, an increase in high-paying tech jobs in the city and a desire to spend more time at parks and museums than in traffic has caused home prices to soar.
The two-hour event, held at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory, was livestreamed online by Channel 2 Action News and on ajc.com as interest in the contest is reaching new heights. Close to 150 people turned out for the discussion from a cross-section of Atlanta, from millennials to grandmothers and everyone in between.
There’s a lot at stake for the candidates. Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who did not attend the forum, has broken out of the pack as the apparent leader, according to recent polls. That has left the remaining contenders — which includes Atlanta City Councilmembers Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell, Keisha Lance Bottoms — battling for second place and a shot at an expected runoff.
The other contenders, who hope to replace Mayor Kasim Reed, who is winding down his second term, include former City Council President Cathy Woolard, former Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, former Atlanta Workforce Development Director Michael Sterling and less well-known hopefuls Laban King and Rohit Ammanamanchi.
The race also is taking place against a back drop of a federal cash-for-contracts investigation at City Hall. Adam Smith, the former head of the city’s procurement office, became the latest person to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in the widespread federal investigation. Two contractors, Elvin “E.R.” Mitchell Jr. and Charles P. Richards Jr., also have pleaded guilty as part of the probe.
The candidates were cordial as they addressed a wide variety of subjects, including ethics, collaborating with Atlanta Public Schools and why each would make a great mayor. Moderator Jocelyn Dorsey, director of editorials and public affairs as WSB-TV, called out a few candidates for violating rules she said prohibited negative attacks, but the discussion went smoothly for the most part.
The setting of the forum also came up in the discussion. The candidates were asked if they supported the annexation of Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Children’s Healthcare into the city, a proposal that Reed has pushed as one of his last acts in office
All but Fort and King were in favor.
“If it means Emory jumps in line over projects that were voted on by the city of Atlanta … I would want to put the brakes on that,” Fort said. “The people of Atlanta did not expect to pay for a light rail line form the city of Atlanta to Emory University.”
King said he was concerned it would dilute the black vote and change the political landscape of Atlanta.
Once the discussion turned to solving Atlanta’s traffic woes, the candidates had very few differences.
Hall said land use and transportation go together. He said we need to put the brakes on the Beltline and fix roads that are broken.
“We have some dollars now and we have to figure out to leverage them to spend them as wisely as possible,” Hall said.
Bottoms said the city’s congestion issues are not just about traffic but mobility. The city needs to be creative and develop public-private partnerships to help address the needs.
She added that expanding the Beltline could help. It could make the city more bike friendly, offer more options to get around on foot and connect more workers to job centers.
“It’s about connecting all parts of this city,” she said.
Candidate Glenn Wrightson said his advantage as mayor would be representing the citizens’ perspective and using plain language when speaking about how he woudl help the city. He said has witnessed the growth of Atlanta and remembers when it had fewer towers and parts of Buckhead were undeveloped.
“I remember when the Hyatt Regency was the tallest building and Phipps Plaza was a cow pasture,” he said.
The event started with a warm welcome from Emory President Claire E. Sterk, who said the meeting was about staring “a community conversation.”
“Emory and Atlanta have something in common. We are local and global economic drivers” and gateways to the world. “Emory is the kind of place where people can hold difficult conversations with respect.”
Jason Grubb, 26, a theology major at Emory, said this before the forum began that it was his first opportunity to dive into the candidates positions. He admitted he had not kept up with the race so was excited when he learned of tonight’s gathering.
“I was curious so I decided to stop by and hear what the candidates have to say,” he said.
Sue Heerin, who lives in Druid Hills, said she came to sort through all the different candidates, some she knows, and many she doesn’t. She said she is undecided, but her top issues are traffic, transportation and affordable housing.
“This is firmly an introduction to most of these people,” she said
Pauline Pituk of Buckhead said she hoped to learn how the candidates plan to take care of the blocking-and-tackling issues of city government: filling pot holes, paving streets and beautification. She said she is dismayed by how many tunnels in the city don’t have lights.
“It’s not safe,” said Pituk, who’s undecided but is leaning toward Mitchell, Aman and Fort. “You need to be able to see.”
Why the Atlanta mayor’s race is worth knowing
The next mayor will impact all of metro Atlanta, and the economy of the Southeast. In our series Election 2017, we examine how a lack of affordable housing means fewer new companies – and new jobs – moving here.
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