Is Atlanta a good place to live? Recent rankings certainly say so. In September 2022, Money magazine ranked Atlanta as the best place to live in the United States, based on its strong job market and job growth. The National Association of Realtors calls it the top housing market to watch in 2023, noting that Atlanta housing prices are lower than comparable cities and it has a rapidly growing population.
But that’s only part of the story. My new book, “Red Hot City: Housing, Race, and Exclusion in Twenty-First Century Atlanta,” dives deep into the past three decades of housing, race, and development in metropolitan Atlanta. As he shows, planning and policy decisions here have fostered a heavily racialized version of gentrification that has excluded low-income, mostly black residents from sharing in the city’s growth.
A key driver of this split is the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile (35-kilometer) loop of multi-use trails with nearby apartments, restaurants and retail stores, built on a former railroad corridor around the heart from Atlanta. Although the BeltLine was designed to connect Atlanta residents and improve their quality of life, it has driven up housing costs on neighboring lots and pushed low-income households to suburbs with fewer services than neighborhoods. downtown.
The BeltLine has become a prime example of what urban scholars call “green gentrification” – a process in which restoring degraded urban areas by adding green features drives up housing prices and pushes out working-class residents. If cities fail to prepare for these effects, gentrification and displacement can turn low-income neighborhoods into areas of concentrated wealth rather than thriving, diverse communities.
The United States is currently facing a national housing affordability crisis. Many factors contributed to this, but as an urban studies scholar, I think it’s important to learn from the Atlanta experience.
No more black majority
American cities are generally diverse places, and many of them are becoming more and more so. But the city of Atlanta is going in the opposite direction: it’s getting richer and whiter.
In 1990, 67% of the city’s inhabitants were black; in 2019, this share had fallen to 48%. At the same time, the share of adults with a university degree rose from 27% to over 56%. The city’s median income rose from 60% of the much larger Atlanta metro area’s median income to 110%. The city’s median family income in 2021 dollars has nearly doubled from about $50,000 to $96,000.
The fastest gentrification happened from 2011, after the foreclosure crisis of 2008-2010. Broadly, urban planners refer to this period as the “fifth wave” of gentrification, during which a surge in rental demand sparked rental property speculation that drove up housing costs.
In Atlanta, that’s when the BeltLine really took off after being proposed in the early 2000s and officially adopted as a tax-increase funding district, or TIF, in 2005. these districts, projected increases in property tax revenue are used to meet this. finance development projects. No urban development project in Metro Atlanta – and perhaps the entire country – has been more transformative.
Driving gentrification and displacement
Even before the passing of the BeltLine TIF neighborhood, promoters, developers, consultants, and many city officials began touting the benefits of a proposed public-private partnership that could remake large parts of the city. Shortly after the special tax district was officially passed for the project, the City of Atlanta established an affiliated nonprofit organization, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., to implement and manage the BeltLine.
In 2004, Yale architect Alexander Garvin published a report titled “The BeltLine Emerald Necklace: Atlanta’s New Public Realm”. “Future BeltLine users are an attractive market,” Garvin wrote. “Early information about the project has already accelerated real estate values.” In 2005, a developer called the BeltLine “the most exciting real estate project since Sherman burned down Atlanta.”
Many neighborhoods the BeltLine passes through, especially on the south and west sides of the city, had seen decades of divestment and were predominantly black and low-income. But the boosters failed to worry about investors and speculators buying up land near the BeltLine, and did not prepare for displacement and exclusion. Garvin’s report did not mention the terms “affordable,” “gentrification,” “low-income,” or “low-income.”
In a 2007 study for the community group Georgia Stand-Up, I found that property values increased much faster near the BeltLine than in areas farther away. This means that property taxes increased for many low-income landlords and rental property owners were likely to increase rents accordingly. This process directly displaced low-income families and made many areas around the BeltLine unaffordable for them.
The BeltLine TIF ordinance included some provisions for affordable housing finance, but as I show in my book, they were fundamentally insufficient and flawed. The BeltLine was the work of a coalition, comprising the core members of Atlanta’s traditional “urban diet” – elected officials and the downtown business elite. Their vision produced a wealthier, whiter urban population.
Rather than focusing on securing land for affordable housing when values were low, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. prioritized building trails and parks. These characteristics have helped to increase property values, accelerating gentrification and displacement.
After the subprime crisis in 2007-2010, foreclosures put pressure on real estate markets. Atlanta lost about 7,000 low-cost rental units from 2010 to 2019. Meanwhile, construction of more expensive new apartments has exploded: permits were issued for more than 37,000 units over roughly the same period.
By my calculations, Atlanta’s job market has exploded from 330,000 jobs in 2011 to over 437,000 jobs in 2019. Companies like Google, Honeywell and Microsoft have moved in, often with city and state subsidies. State. Many new jobs paid over $100,000 a year and went to young, highly skilled workers, driving up demand for housing.
In 2017, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of high profile investigations documenting that the BeltLine had produced just 600 affordable housing units in 11 years – well below the pace required to reach its goal of 5,600. by 2030. Some of these units had been resold to wealthy households. Shortly thereafter, the CEO of Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. resigned.
That year, a student and I redid my 2007 study of home values around the BeltLine. Again, we found that in the years we looked at – this time, 2011 to 2015 – house prices near the BeltLine have risen much faster than in areas farther away. The BeltLine was certainly not the only cause of gentrification and racial exclusion in Atlanta, but it was a key contributor.
Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. has increased its affordable housing business in recent years, and in late 2020 launched a program to pay for rising property taxes for inherited residents. However, at this point in the BeltLine’s existence, displacement prevention efforts may be too weak, too late. As of May 2021, only 128 owners had applied for the program. Only 21 had received assistance.
What can other cities learn from Atlanta’s experience? In my opinion, the most important lesson learned is the importance of affordable housing efforts in major redevelopment projects.
This means assembling and banking nearby land as soon as possible to use later for affordable housing. Cities should also limit property tax increases for low-income landlords and for landlords who agree to keep a substantial portion of their rental units affordable. They could offer low-cost, long-term financing to existing rental properties at a lower cost – again, in return for keeping rent affordable.
Some large-scale urban redevelopment projects, like 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, appear to be making serious efforts to anticipate and mitigate gentrification and displacement. I hope that more cities will follow this example before undertaking “transformative” projects.
Dan Immergluck is Professor of Urban Studies, Georgia State University