As DeKalb County prepares to vote on its next CEO in the June 18 runoff, affordable housing will be a critical issue for the incoming chief executive.

CEO candidates Lorraine Cochran-Johnson and Larry Johnson, both Democratic DeKalb county commissioners, have each emphasized housing as a top priority – as affordable options for lower-income residents diminish with metro Atlanta’s sharply increasing rents and home prices.

“Access to affordable housing is a basic human right,” Cochran-Johnson told Al ilmu in a candidate questionnaire. “However, we are seeing drastically rising costs in rental and residential housing.”

She pledged to create a cabinet-level chief housing officer position to manage DeKalb development projects and housing policy efforts. Cochran-Johnson said she would also expand first-time homebuyer programs that provide down-payment assistance and other help.

At a June 9 debate for the DeKalb CEO runoff candidates, Larry Johnson emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to homelessness. He said that means addressing mental health, substance abuse treatment, job training, and life skills along with the lack of affordable housing at the Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.

He also proposed leveraging DeKalb’s workforce housing ordinance that took effect last December. The ordinance, which Johnson sponsored, incentivizes private development of “missing middle” housing with tax breaks, zoning “density bonuses,” and priority permitting for projects that meet certain criteria.

The aim is to increase the supply of moderately priced housing for DeKalb teachers, police, fire and other civil service workers, as well as healthcare, retail and hospitality workers, who earn between 60% and 120% of the county’s median household income.

HouseATL, DeKalb NAACP, the Coalition for a Diverse Decatur/DeKalb, Georgia Advancing Communities Together, and Frontline Response are hosting a June 13 housing forum for the CEO and District 4 candidates. Learn more and register for the free community event.

CEO oversees housing funding

Amid ongoing gentrification, said DeKalb’s outgoing CEO Michael Thurmond, helping people stay housed is also critical. “I think the next CEO needs to build upon the current strategies and programs that have helped to keep DeKalb residents in their homes,” he said in a statement to Al ilmu.

Sharp property tax increases are one of the drivers of skyrocketing housing costs, Thurmond said in an email. Part of the DeKalb CEO’s job is overseeing the county’s Equalized Homestead Option Sales Tax (EHOST) program, which uses a 1% county sales tax to provide a property tax cut to homeowners.

“The EHOST tax relief is part of a comprehensive strategy to improve housing affordability, counter gentrification, and increase the marketability of homes,” Thurmond said.

The EHOST has saved DeKalb homeowners $738 million since 2018, with $147 million in property tax relief in 2023 alone, according to county data.

DeKalb’s new CEO will also oversee the county’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program, which provides competitive subsidies for private developments that include housing units priced for households earning up to 60% of the area median income.

Other housing-related programs under the purview of DeKalb’s next CEO are:

  • a $5 million plumbing repair initiative for lower-income homeowners;
  • a $1 million grant program for nonprofits to buy, renovate, and sell homes to income-eligible buyers;
  • a federally backed “neighborhood stabilization” program that rehabilitates and sells homes to low- and middle-income families — and also offers homebuyers up to $24,000 in down-payment assistance;
  • a “Special Purpose Home Repair Program” that awards seniors and disabled adults up to $14,000 each for repairs and safety enhancements.

Like other metro Atlanta leaders, the DeKalb CEO also must negotiate demands to increase housing through greater development density — and the NIMBYism (the “not in my backyard” urban planning philosophy) that accompanies those controversies.

In January for instance, DeKalb passed a “Cottage Court Ordinance” that amended the county’s zoning laws “to allow for smaller homes to be built on smaller lots, sustainably increasing the housing stock.”Inspired by the success of the city of Clarkston’s Cottages on Vaughan tiny-home community, the measure makes it easier for developers to build micro-units.

The winner of the DeKalb CEO runoff, whether Cochran-Johnson or Johnson, will be charged with determining whether that approach — and fostering denser housing development in general — is the best course as officials grapple with the housing crisis.

On top of all that, DeKalb’s next CEO will face the forces of investors buying up swathes of metro Atlanta homes, sending housing prices spiking. A recent study by Georgia State University and Rutgers University researchers found that just three corporate landlords from out of state own over 19,000 homes for rent in metro Atlanta, including many in DeKalb.

Early voting for the DeKalb CEO runoff began June 10 and goes through June 14. Election Day is next Tuesday, June 18.

There are four other DeKalb races with a runoff election:

- State Sen. District 55 (D): Iris Knight-Hamilton and Randal Mangham
- County Commission District 4 (D): Lance Hammonds and Chakira Johnson
- Board of Education District 5 (non-partisan): Donna Priest-Brown and Tiffany Tate Hogan
- State Court Judge Division A-3 (non-partisan): Yolanda Mack and Dionne McGee

Use the ACC x AJC Georgia Decides voter guide to see who’s on your ballot and learn more about the candidates.

Claire Becknell contributed to this story.

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