Gentrification seems scary and inevitable – a condition so complex that we are helpless in the face of it. We’re not. And in fact, what we need to do is really straightforward.
Let’s back up. The threat of gentrification comes when powerful market forces of growth translate into the displacement of people who can’t afford the associated higher taxes and rents. Unless those forces are framed in ways that help families mitigate the rising cost of living, people with lower incomes and other vulnerable groups – often the very people who made an area attractive to growth in the first place, and often disenfranchised communities of color – have no other choice but to move away. For these residents, even well-intentioned actions and investments by newcomers can reasonably be seen as a threat because they can fuel this cycle of displacement.
That’s happening here. And like most big cities, Atlanta’s crisis of affordability is the most important issue right now. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on traffic, crime, schools, jobs, or transit. It just means that if we love each other, we should make sure that those efforts support everyone. That requires us to create room for all voices at the decision-making table, ensure that all benefits are shared, and mitigate the rising cost of living through new tools, investments, and policies that allow everyone to enjoy the opportunities that come with revitalization.
That’s love – translated into urban development. Delivering on that kind of love, of course, is more easily said than done. The recent exposé about the Atlanta Beltline’s lack of progress on affordable housing illustrates the real challenge – and a painful missed opportunity. While we can’t expect the planned loop of transit, parks, and trails to completely solve our affordability crisis, we have so far missed out on its promise to be a catalyst and example for balanced growth.
It’s relevant to note, however, an early way the project did model change. The only reason 15 percent of the Atlanta Beltline’s TAD (Tax Allocation District) bonds are committed to affordable housing is because in the early days of our effort, housing advocates were at the table and insisted it be part of the mix. There were partners who actively protested, even though legally, the TAD required two-thirds of the area to qualify as “blighted.” Advocates succeeded by making the case that a truly inclusive vision can’t ask those communities to fund their own displacement.
Since the TAD’s approval in late 2005 and the project’s demonstrated economic success since opening the Eastside Trail in 2012, the momentum of its physical implementation has drowned out the voices of those calling for investments in other measures of its success. To rebalance that, and as we look more broadly at the crisis of affordability across the city, there are many specific things we can do. They include increased housing supply, expanded subsidies, rehabilitation and preservation of existing units, and targeted regulatory improvements on everything from parking requirements to garage apartments.
The simplicity of these tools reminds us that our response to gentrification isn’t rocket science. It’s not even high school science. It’s a basic question of whether we love each other or not, how willing we are to include everyone, and how courageous we are as citizens to provide the political cover for equity. We have to speak up and hold our leaders accountable. We have to ask the mayoral and council candidates for specific policy proposals. Most of all, we have to follow through with the tools to build an Atlanta where everyone matters.
Ryan Gravel created the concept that became the Atlanta Beltline. Nathaniel Smith is founder of the nonprofit Partnership for Southern Equity. Both men resigned in 2016 from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership over the issue of affordable housing.