With the 2024 state legislative session fast approaching, local advocacy group HouseATL has released a comprehensive policy roadmap to expand affordable housing. 

HouseATL—a broad coalition of Atlanta civic leadership from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—launched in 2018 to address the city’s mounting affordable housing crisis. This is the group’s first major housing policy update since then. The 23 recommendations it’s developed expand the scope from the city of Atlanta to the five-county metro region of Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties.

HouseATL’s initial policy recommendations five years ago laid the groundwork for the city of Atlanta’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Housing Opportunity Bond program, anti-displacement initiatives, and a slew of other public efforts to make living in the city affordable for moderate and low-income people.

Despite these notable public efforts, metro Atlantans are feeling the housing squeeze. Home prices in the region have spiked 73% since 2017—a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising interest rates—while wages have remained stagnant. Consequently, the pressure to produce affordable units is as high as ever.

In its latest housing policy recommendations, released Nov. 16, HouseATL highlighted six focus areas for metro Atlanta policymakers:

● Earmark dedicated revenue sources for affordable housing development

● Enhance and protect renters’ rights

● Create sustainable housing funding sources for people earning under 50% of the area median income

● Prioritize publicly owned assets for affordable housing

● Provide resources to encourage affordable/starter home construction

● Secure property tax exemptions for affordable rental housing

Al ilmu spoke with HouseATL’s executive director, Natallie Keiser, to find out how far we’ve come since 2018—and how far we still have to go to make living in metro Atlanta affordable for everyone.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Al ilmu: What have been the biggest shifts over the last five years in how elected leaders in Atlanta and statewide are approaching housing policy?

Natallie Keiser: One issue that is newer in this set of recommendations is affordable homeownership, which was much less of a challenge in 2018 than it is now. In our five-county core, [the Urban Land Institute Atlanta] is reporting a 73% increase in home prices since 2017. So the fact that there are so many fewer options for affordable homeownership has really been heightened.

We've leaned into that with these recommendations. One of the findings from the ULI Atlanta housing study is that, for people who are below 80% of the area median income, there are no homes affordable in the five-county core area at the median affordable price. Not having that path to upward mobility and wealth-building is a huge issue for Atlanta's economic wellbeing.

What’s made homes so much more expensive? Obviously, the pandemic played a big role.

It's a confluence of factors. Think back to the foreclosure crisis [in the late 2000s] and the disproportionate impact that had on Georgia. We lost construction companies and lending institutions, because our economy was so dependent on housing development.

[Housing] production dipped after that. We also had some anomalies with production from corporations acquiring foreclosed properties that shifted our market in a different way than elsewhere around the country.

And then the pandemic hit us with supply chain issues. And then, of course, the interest rate whammies affect both [potential] homeowners’ ability to purchase, but also developers who rely on the credit market.

There are also policy issues: zoning limitations, our loss of missing middle housing, which used to historically exist [before] zoning restrictions tightened. As those properties are converted, we're losing them and not rebuilding them. It's a multiplicity of factors. That's why we have 23 total recommendations.

Historically, the Republican-dominated state legislature has balked at enacting progressive housing policies. As the affordability crisis worsens, do you see minds changing?

The shift is in the awareness that we have a challenge. But there's always a varied array of perspectives on how we address it, as well as what aspects people want to address: Is it workforce housing, rental, homeownership, or housing the unhoused?

I think there’s a growing recognition that we have to get a little more creative, and we have to make some changes. Just look at the governor's Rural Workforce Housing Initiative and the investment of American Rescue Plan funds into affordable housing development. Those were new steps, so there definitely is a recognition that we have to make some changes.

Especially in areas attracting manufacturing facilities, people know we have a lot of jobs coming—and we don't have housing for the workers. So how are we going to grapple with this? There are a lot of local leaders who hadn't been thinking a lot about housing, who are thinking about it a lot now. They want the economic boom of the jobs and recognize that they need to respond.

Some Georgia lawmakers say the solution to the housing crisis is to create more supply—that the market will adjust and housing prices will drop. HouseATL’s 23 new recommendations are more nuanced. Why can’t we just build more market-rate housing?

If you just try to increase overall supply, it doesn’t help people at the lowest level of the income spectrum. The problem is it ends up [producing] that trickle-down, unhealthy housing that we've seen, highlighted so aptly by the Atlanta Journal Constitution's [Dangerous Dwellings series].

That means that people are struggling with health issues, their children are struggling in school, and we're getting all kinds of negative life outcomes when we're just relying on general market-rate supply to trickle down to affordable housing. It's inadequate. It's poorly managed.

If we want to get quality life outcomes across the spectrum so that our area is inclusive economically, we have to have a whole array of tools to really produce that housing directly for people who are lower income.

With rising costs, that's become more of a challenge. That's why we need a greater focus on it. The new ULI Atlanta study shows that for our cost-burdened population [people spending over 30% of their income on housing], the greatest percentage are renters—and most make below 60% of the area median income.

HouseATL recommends that the state of Georgia make a one-time allocation of $100 million from its nearly $11 billion budget surplus to fund its Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless. Is that realistic?

There's an enormous opportunity there. The beauty of the [state's] Housing Trust Fund is that those funds don't expire. So the state could make a dedication from that surplus to the Housing Trust Fund, and they can build on that work for whatever period of time that they would like.

The trust is severely underfunded. It's received about $3 million a year over the past 15 years. It's also not fully realizing its potential: It can be used for [property] acquisition, construction, predevelopment, and down-payment assistance for homeownership. There's a lot of purposes under the enabling legislation for that housing trust fund that the state could take advantage of to accomplish a lot. It's our duty to advocate for that opportunity.

How successful do you think HouseATL’s previous recommendations from 2018 were at mitigating our affordable housing shortage? The new list has a few recommendations that Atlanta, for instance, is already making progress on—like prioritizing publicly owned land and buildings for housing, and creating the Urban Development Corporation.

With the publicly owned assets, the city of Atlanta is doing an excellent job, but [repurposing public land for housing] is a novel concept still to some other cities and counties. We are hoping to share the example of what's happening in the city of Atlanta with other jurisdictions. The Atlanta Regional Commission has been working with me to map some of that publicly owned land and to discuss with other elected officials around the region to see where the interest and energy is to mobilize on that.

And yes, there has been progress made on many of the recommendations from 2018. Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms embraced the original recommendations with her One Atlanta: Housing Affordability Action Plan and set that goal of producing 20,000 affordable units that Mayor [Andre] Dickens reupped and is tracking. That was an enormous step.

The difficulty is that with Atlanta's population growth and all those other factors we talked about earlier, the [housing] gap has grown. So, despite the progress with the number of subsidized housing units—which the city of Atlanta has made more progress on than anyone else in the five-county area—the gap is still growing, because of our loss of those naturally occurring affordable housing units.

What are HouseATL’s loftiest goals among the 23 new recommendations? Politicians have attempted some things on this list unsuccessfully, like enacting stronger tenant protections.

I don't know if I can say that one is more lofty than another. They're all pretty difficult, right? [Enacting] tenant protections is a huge challenge at the state capitol. Georgia is among the most landlord-friendly state law environments in the country. So it was always difficult to talk about changing the [landlord-tenant] balance to have a more equivalent situation for tenants.

Adding to the difficulty is the eviction backlog in Fulton County. Landlords are struggling with these eviction backlogs in Fulton and somewhat in DeKalb, which makes it very difficult for landlords to want to partner with us on tenant protections, even though tenant protections are a long-term issue [and eviction backlogs from COVID-19 are short-term].

But I'm hopeful. House Bill 404 [the Safe at Home Act, requiring rental properties to be “fit for human habitation”] made a lot of progress last session, so we have good groundwork laid to advance it.

What is the most important item on HouseATL’s new list of recommendations?

Our membership prioritized six recommendations—and their number one was the need for dedicated [state and local] revenue sources [to develop affordable housing, like housing trust funds]. That is thinking really long-term about how we put a framework in place that is sustainable over a long period of time and is flexible for what we need.

If we could get the state enabling legislation to allow jurisdictions to dedicate a revenue source at the local level if they want to—just having the option there so that they don't have to annually allocate money for affordable housing—they can have an ongoing, dedicated revenue source. That likely won't happen this year, but it’s something that we will be pushing hard with many, many organizations that have been working on it for a while.

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