The New Atlanta Way

The New Atlanta Way

by Dillon K. and Sara Khaled

The phrase “Atlanta Way” refers to the historic cooperation between Atlanta’s white and Black elite to avoid racial unrest. The inner workings of this marriage have spurred plenty of conversations. Today, as city government’s decades-long marriage continues to define and control the city, a new Atlanta Way has emerged, defined by neoliberal infrastructure projects which leave the fate of the city and the well-being of its residents in the hands of private enterprise.(1)Read more on this here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275114001899

In the great race for profit, Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, and other cities show a crisis. Our friend Eve Mitchell explains:

Today’s crisis is manifested in the inability of the working class to take care of itself, or reproduce itself; it is a crisis of reproduction.  Wages are so low that the working class cannot get everything it needs to go to work every day and satisfy its most basic needs.  The working class has responded to this crisis of reproduction with personal debt.  We get credit cards to buy clothes and pay our cell phone bills and we take out student loans we may never pay back, just to make an extra $3/hr. This is what life looks like for the working class today.(2)Eve Mitchell in a piece to be published shortly.

Though Atlanta’s leaders are no strangers to this crisis (see: boarded houses, piss wages, high unemployment, outrageous debt), they are incapable of enacting a plan to resolve it, because the crisis itself is created by the pursuit of profit.

As a general law of capitalism, profits must always increase.  So capitalists make changes to the workplace, by introducing more and more machines and pushing workers out of the production process, to ensure a higher rate of profit.  However, this catches up to them.  Since workers are the only ones capable of creating value (there is always a worker somewhere in the production process!), the more capitalists push workers out of the production process, the more the profit margin weakens.  Couple this phenomenon with the working class’s increased dependence on debt and loans and we find ourselves in today’s economic crisis.(3)Eve Mitchell again

gentrificationNeoliberalism guts reproductive services in order to decrease government spending and deregulate the private sector to allow private capital greater economic control. Atlanta has favored neoliberal policies for decades, from the destruction of public housing to the closing of a major homeless shelter. There is a number of neoliberal projects in place right now, but perhaps the most important project—the one that will transform the once haven for Black people and disenfranchised sections of the LBTQ community into a haven for capital—is the Beltline.

 

 

The Beltline: Bringing the City Together?

The Beltline is a massive infrastructure project that seeks to “bring the city together” by linking inner city neighborhoods through a series of trails, parks, and transit lines. Already, multiple trails and parks have been built, such as the Eastside Trail and the Historic Fourth Ward Park. As infrastructure development continues, the Beltline continues to sell surrounding property to private businesses.

The Beltine aims to bring more people with more money into the city. But the city is finite—in other words, more people coming in means more people being pushed out. Already an inversion of the city and suburbs has taken place. As wealthier, whiter folks move into the city, poorer, mostly POC folks are pushed out to the suburbs, far from the proposed development. Current city residents sit in construction traffic thinking, “None of this is for me.” 

The Beltline relies on a structure that appears to give back; in reality the Beltline takes from the community, only to return a spiffed and spotless product to a separate community its policies helped to create.

Research has traced this inversion: 

In the Atlanta metro region, by 2010, fully 87 percent of the African American population lived in the suburbs.[..] The 2010 census revealed a significant exodus of blacks (29,746) out of Atlanta city over the previous decade. At the same time, the number of blacks in the metro Atlanta area grew by 490,982—a 40 percent increase. The lion’s share of blacks who migrated to metro Atlanta settled in the suburbs—not the city.(4)https://www.google.com/url?q=http://southernspaces.org/2015/segregations-new-geography-atlanta-metro-region-race-and-declining-prospects-upward-mobility&sa=D&ust=1447451203899000&usg=AFQjCNEU6PcPj0IuKGM50LN_IkBtcIutcg

While the Beltline claims to bring the city together, it may instead create a whole new city—a city that rejects many of the residents currently residing here. The project, backed by the city council, the mayor, Home Depot, and MARTA, boasts about its plan to build public infrastructure through private investment in order to “redevelop” the city. But private investment is only one part of the picture.  The Beltline relies on the very residents it threatens to remove. In a move more sinister than even we expected, the Beltline secured long-term tax funding—taxes that were originally meant to pay for Atlanta Public Schools.

APS and TAD Funding

In order to understand the extent to which the Beltline is anti-poor and anti-black, it is important to situate it in terms of the city infrastructure. A TAD, or tax allocation district, which is levied through city agreements, made the Beltline possible. This structure pools the real estate property taxes above a certain level and uses them for whatever project required the TAD. TADs are usually created to span for at least 25 years and tend to hover somewhere between 25 and 30 years. The Beltline TAD, created in 2004, is scheduled to last 25 years, ending somewhere between 2029 and 2030. TADs really make their money through tax-free bonds. That means that the homeowner’s taxes redistributed into the Beltline TAD are not subject to the taxes that you,I or, in theory, Coca-Cola pays to the state and federal government. This allows the TAD to grow undisturbed, increasing its wealth without tax infringements. The Beltline TAD bonds alone have grossed 36% of its wealth

A school system responsible for schooling tens of thousands of children, many of whom come from working class backgrounds and limited opportunities, is taking money that could provide better classroom environments, better-paid, more appreciated teachers, increased supplies, and an engaging and inviting learning environment and investing it in bike lanes and trails for an increasingly white population.

Keep in mind, these are not the actual TAD or property taxes levied through the City of Atlanta; these are just the bonds. This is all good and well for TADs created according to a federal definition that reserves the TADs for blighted areas. In theory, TADs are created for the renewal of areas that are neglected, underdeveloped and poor, which is why they are tax-exempt and long-lasting. However, Georgia and a few other states have found a way to circumvent this categorization. Anyone familiar with Inman Park before the Beltline certainly wouldn’t label the area blighted or in need of development. The Beltline relies on a structure that appears to give back; in reality the Beltline takes from the community, only to return a spiffed and spotless product to a separate community its policies helped to create. 

As though the TAD itself were not curse enough upon the community, there is more insult to be added. About a year after the creation of the Beltline TAD, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners decided to join the TAD. Let that marinate for a minute. A school system responsible for schooling tens of thousands of children, many of whom come from working class backgrounds and limited opportunities, is taking money that could provide better classroom environments, better-paid, more appreciated teachers, increased supplies, and an engaging and inviting learning environment and investing it in bike lanes and trails for an increasingly white population. To be clear, APS knew exactly what they were doing. The Beltline has been accused of gentrifying Atlanta since its inception in 2004. APS allowed children of wealthier, white parents to begin to replace the children they serve in efforts to improve the reputation of the APS school system. Yes, the budget would be a little tight for the interim, but hey—what’s 25 years in the grand scheme of things?

APS bandMost TAD participants wait 25 to 30 years for payday; APS and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners opted instead to receive partial yearly payments, reducing the total payout they would receive at the end of the 25 years. Perhaps they realized they were already starved for money and to go 25 years without a reliable tax would be disastrous. Or perhaps for PR purposes it was best that they simulate a rationally thought out plan to continue sustaining themselves. Regardless, both APS and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners chose to receive a yearly payment after the TAD’s 6th year to allow the Beltline a few years to get off the ground. The Beltline’s projected revenue at 25 years end determined the yearly installment. For APS, this would be 5% of the projected 3 billion, and for the Fulton County Board of Commissioners this would be less. The first installment to APS and the Board of Commissioners was scheduled for 2011.

However, in 2009 the Beltline and APS had two separate meetings. The result was a decision to delay the payment until 2013. To date, the Beltline has made one $1.95 million payment to APS. At the start of their agreement, the Beltline was to pay $7.5 million per year in years six through twenty-five. The disparity between the agreed upon installment and the actual sum is stark and frightening. Does APS not also have 5, 10, and 20 year plans that account for money the Beltline promised them? How much are they hiding about their financial affairs and to what degree is this intentional gentrification immediately affecting the quality of APS students’ education? These are students who are overwhelmingly black, many of whom are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program

So why does this project still exist? For what reason is money funneled out of a school system which just this year cut all of the band programs in its elementary schools, and which, three years ago, closed down SEVEN schools, all of which catered to mostly black and working class families?

The official reason for the diminished pay out is that the Beltline is making much less than it projected. Last year, the Beltline made only $18 million of a projected $47 million, and yet these past few years have been the project’s golden years in terms of profit. So why does this project still exist? For what reason is money funneled out of a school system which just this year cut all of the band programs in its elementary schools, and which, three years ago, closed down SEVEN schools, all of which catered to mostly black and working class families? Not only is the Beltline project failing as a project by its own terms—the project is a failure in nature. Any city which approves a project that rapidly gentrifies the city, robs city children of funds operable schools require, and helps re-define affordable housing so that “affordability” is relegated only to the young, white, upwardly mobile is a city hell bent on destroying its own population.

Atlanta’s Housing Crisis

We’re not sure Atlanta has ever been without some sort of housing crisis. From segregation to desegregation and white flight to the creation and destruction of public housing, the city has always lacked sufficient decent housing for its residents. The recent crisis in affordable housing and the inversion of black and white, poor and well-off, is just the latest flare up of an underlying crisis of surplus populations. In other words, they just don’t know what to do with us. We could say a lot about the racialized housing of the city before public housing, but for brevity’s sake we’ll start there.

Atlanta is a record-holder. In 1936, Atlanta built Techwoods Homes, the first housing project in the nation. The New York Times reports, “By the 1990s, a greater percentage of the city’s residents were living in housing projects — sprawling red-brick barracks that pockmarked the skyline — than in any other city in America.” Then, in 2010, Atlanta tore down its last public housing structure, Bowen Homes, becoming the first city to do away with public housing entirely.(5)https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/tricknology-101/&sa=D&ust=1447451203859000&usg=AFQjCNGXMMAUxBDySmGcLD-xWEm5WBQMbw

AHA demolishCreative Loafing explains, “Georgia State University sociology professor Deirdre Oakley says AHA [Atlanta Housing Authority] broke up pockets of poverty and modestly improved living conditions. But that happened at the cost of displacing tenants, destroying tight-knit communities, and largely failing to pull residents out of poverty.”(6)https://www.google.com/url?q=http://clatl.com/atlanta/atlanta-housing-authority-demolition-only-shifted-pockets-of-poverty/Content?oid%3D3896763&sa=D&ust=1447451203827000&usg=AFQjCNGIKTHr11xD4o-gPmDM6oULyuZ37w  Exactly how many people were displaced or forced out of Atlanta remains unclear.

The Beltline recognizes the need for affordable housing. Their own research reveals that The City of Atlanta Affordable Housing Implementation Task Force estimates that existing housing needs require the provision of 30,000 to 50,000 affordable units.(7)https://www.google.com/url?q=http://beltlineorg.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/BAHAB-Affordable-Housing-Trust-Fund.pdf&sa=D&ust=1447451203893000&usg=AFQjCNGTi4-P2Bi7WQ6LV9sAdddvaQdA5Q They admit that one-quarter of Atlanta households live in physically substandard units; one‐third of Atlanta’s working households are “housing cost burdened,” which means that housing expenses draw more than 30% of their income; and many families are losing their existing affordable housing in the City of Atlanta due to rising land values, mortgage fraud, expiring affordable housing subsidies, and demolition of existing housing stock. Further, most jobs in Metropolitan Atlanta pay less than $40,000 annually, but most of the housing built is not affordable for people earning that amount. In fact, fully one quarter of City of Atlanta households have incomes below 30% of the Area Mean Income (AMI).

From their report: “Atlanta’s economy is based in large part on the service industry. These are the waiters and waitresses, parking lot attendants, housekeepers and bus drivers—people who may need to live near public transportation.(8)Ibid.  

There are roughly 12,000 vacant units around the Beltline area. Atlanta famously has 3 vacant houses for every 1 unsheltered person; there is plenty of space to repurpose for decent housing. Yet, the Beltline plans to construct 28,000 residential units. And although they recognize the need for up to 50,000 affordable units, only 5,600 of these new units will be affordable.

Affordable Housing

The Beltline planners decided that affordable housing will go to “households who earn below 60% of the Area Mean Income (AMI). For ownership, the target households are those who earn below 100% of AMI.” The average household income target for renters qualifying for these units is between about 18k and 37k. For homeownership, the target is about 37k to 62k. So far, the average income for those granted mortgages through the Beltline is 45k, and 87% of those are occupied by single people.(9)Ibid. In other words, a single man making 45k at a tech job will qualify for affordable housing.

The Beltline pretends to prioritize those living in Beltline neighborhoods, yet 99% of the awardees of affordable housing were not from a Beltline neighborhood, and only 64% were City of Atlanta residents at all.

The Beltline pretends to prioritize those living in Beltline neighborhoods, yet 99% of the awardees of affordable housing were not from a Beltline neighborhood, and only 64% were City of Atlanta residents at all. They propose to prefer employees of the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and the Atlanta Public Schools, yet 92% of recipients thus far are not employed in those areas.(10)Ibid.

Maybe the biggest hole in all of this: their plans never mention race. In a city with a violent history of segregation and numerous disparities along racial lines, the biggest development project of its time fails to address them at all.

Then, this gem: “Because AMI may change over time, the definition of “affordable” will also change.”(11)Ibid. In other words, as Beltline construction drives up housing prices and attracts residents with higher incomes, the Area Mean Income will rise, and, with it, the income cap on affordable housing. Those who may qualify for these supposedly affordable units won’t for long.

Destroying the Myth

beltline developThe bottom line is that Beltline is not the beacon of hope that city residents want it to be. While it’s true that it will stimulate economic growth, it certainly won’t save us. In fact, it will exacerbate the housing crisis faced by low income people, push the remaining low income residents out of the city center, and continue to strain Atlanta Public Schools. For upper middle class families wanting local grocery stores, trails, parks for their kids, and a “connected Atlanta” (whatever that means), the Beltline is a promise. For those of us whose children attend APS, who rely on housing vouchers to make rent every month, who can’t afford higher property taxes, and only want to move if it’s into a better neighborhood, this Beltline is a threat.

To be clear, progress is a good thing. We want parks and decent housing, local grocery stores and better transit. But if the Beltline offers these things, it offers them only to certain residents—those of us lucky enough to stay in place and the new residents to come.

There is a crisis within it all. As working people struggle to support themselves with temporary and low-wage jobs, as housing prices increase and traffic gets worse, we find ourselves pushed further to the edge. The Beltline has not, nor will it ever, help the residents of Atlanta who have supported themselves and their families for decades now. No amount of liberal, feel-good language can fool us into thinking so.

The Atlanta Streetcar rides around the downtown district almost empty. This brand new project appears to have failed and holds within it the germ of decay. It’s hard not to see the Beltline with the same eyes. We look at the new Ponce City Market, with its restaurants that we can’t afford and it’s lofts we’ll never be allowed in, and we sense doom. There is a new Atlanta in the works. If we don’t act fast, it might not have room for us.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Read more on this here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264275114001899
2. Eve Mitchell in a piece to be published shortly.
3. Eve Mitchell again
4. https://www.google.com/url?q=http://southernspaces.org/2015/segregations-new-geography-atlanta-metro-region-race-and-declining-prospects-upward-mobility&sa=D&ust=1447451203899000&usg=AFQjCNEU6PcPj0IuKGM50LN_IkBtcIutcg
5. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/tricknology-101/&sa=D&ust=1447451203859000&usg=AFQjCNGXMMAUxBDySmGcLD-xWEm5WBQMbw
6. https://www.google.com/url?q=http://clatl.com/atlanta/atlanta-housing-authority-demolition-only-shifted-pockets-of-poverty/Content?oid%3D3896763&sa=D&ust=1447451203827000&usg=AFQjCNGIKTHr11xD4o-gPmDM6oULyuZ37w
7. https://www.google.com/url?q=http://beltlineorg.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/BAHAB-Affordable-Housing-Trust-Fund.pdf&sa=D&ust=1447451203893000&usg=AFQjCNGTi4-P2Bi7WQ6LV9sAdddvaQdA5Q
8, 9, 10, 11. Ibid.