By Candice M. Williams
In 2005, as the U.S. property market quickly approached the apex of a housing bubble, Jimmy McMillan, a mayoral candidate in New York City said, “The rent is too damn high.” His frank delivery of this simple message captured the emotional imagination of those struggling to afford rent far beyond the borders of New York. It validated the idea that their struggle to pay rent was not simply due to an inability to budget or to make appropriate financial choices by acknowledging that rents were too damn high, an experience shared by millions of Americans across the nation.
Seventeen years, a global financial crisis, and a pandemic later, for many, the problem has only gotten worse. Despite consistent and historical increases in the number of households that rent over the past two decades, affordable rental units have continued to decrease.1 The problem of affordable rental housing is also impacted by historically persistent practices of discrimination that produce inequity along lines of identity. In this article, I suggest that addressing affordable rental housing requires not only policy commitments from local officials but active and engaged community members and community-based organizations, to hold elected officials accountable and ensure that the lived experiences of residents are reflected in the development of policies and strategies.
The Best Solutions are Generated from Co-operative Community Engagement
When it comes to community engagement, I believe the most effective solutions are local in nature, even if the underlying problem is widespread. Regardless of where a community member may fall ideologically on the political spectrum, and despite what they may espouse about the size and function of government, there is a shared belief, rooted in a continued, if wavering, commitment to the accessibility of the American Dream, that we have an obligation to address housing affordability and housing insecurity.
In a social and political sphere that has grown hyper-polarized over the past few decades, public acknowledgment of shared values is increasingly rare. While this may result from fundamental differences in how we arrive at these shared values, in instances where they exist, we have an obligation to act.
If we accept that we have an obligation to address rental housing affordability and housing insecurity, what are the benefits of local, community-generated solutions? To explore this question, I took some ideas from a guide called “Developing Effective Citizen Engagement: A How-to Guide for Community Leaders,” and added some of my own.2 I suggest that effective community engagement geared towards community-generated solutions minimally results in the following benefits:
- Increased trust in local governments – Even as trust in the federal government has declined, faith in state and local governments has remained remarkably stable, with small increases among some demographics, over the past decade.3 While this happens for several reasons, one of the most likely is the perception that local governments are best equipped to address issues that are of immediate concern to their community members because of their ability to act more quickly than state or federal governments. Given how immediate, and often visible, rental housing affordability and housing scarcity are to community members, community-informed policy action taken by local governments would increase trust in local governments and community organizations.
- The establishment of more responsive and resilient community feedback networks – For local governance to be effective, both in their ability to respond directly to the needs of community members and to advocate for their community at the state and federal level, there need to be local feedback networks that are responsive and resilient. Given the many points at which community members are likely to engage local government due to housing or housing-related matters, community-generated solutions are likely to produce, and result from, entrenched community feedback networks.
- Increased participation from individuals historically underrepresented in local government – The reasons for which groups of individuals, and their priorities, have been historically underrepresented in local government often have roots in historical, identity-based practices of discrimination. While some communities have done a better job than others to address codified and socially institutionalized practices of discrimination, other communities continue to struggle with where to begin this work. Given that rental housing affordability and housing insecurity disproportionately impact groups of individuals in a manner that is predictable based on socio-economic and identity-based factors, community-informed policy action on rental housing affordability and housing insecurity would be a way for local governments to demonstrate a genuine commitment toward inclusivity.
- Improved community member knowledge and willingness to engage in community-based problem-solving – Community members often feel as though they do not understand or have the power to influence local policy. This sentiment reduces the likelihood that they engage in community-based problem solving when not connected to other community members who are attempting to address the same challenges. Because the issue of rental housing affordability and rental housing insecurity is so significant, there often exist community interest groups at local and state levels. Local governments who proactively try to put concerned or impacted community members in contact with these organizations will benefit in the short and long term from better-informed community members who are willing to engage in community-based problem-solving.
- Increased community member knowledge and understanding of the scope of local governance and their ability to see themselves as participants. – While many community members may have greater trust in the sincerity of local officials to address community challenges, they may be less aware of the scope of local government and its impact. Community-informed policy action taken by local government on rental housing affordability and rental housing security would demonstrate the significance of local government and increase the importance of running for local office or serving on a local committee.
- More effective solutions – Community-informed solutions are likely to be more effective because they can account for the nuances of community development, including the historical settling of places. Local officials who engage community members on rental housing affordability or rental housing insecurity are likely to learn more about how community members understand the history of their community, how this history impacts present challenges, and generate more effective solutions to housing and other matters.
- Increased ownership of solutions and greater willingness to consider necessary changes or adjustments – In a hyper-partisan, hyper-polarized political and social climate, one of the most significant challenges to idea generation and policy development is concern about policy failure. Officials at all levels of government are concerned about what happens if a policy proves to be ineffective or if there are unforeseen outcomes. Policy that is developed through active community engagement, and in partnership with community-based organizations, is less likely to suffer such a fate due to greater faith in the policy intention, greater ownership of policy outcomes, and a greater commitment to making appropriate changes and adjustments. Because of the immediate, and often visible, nature of rental housing affordability and housing scarcity, community members are less likely to focus on the failures of community-informed policy and more likely to focus on what is successful and what can be improved.
An Example: Atlanta, Georgia and the 1996 Summer Olympic Games
The history of urbanization in Atlanta, Georgia, is both alike and somewhat dissimilar to the development trajectories of other major U.S. cities. Initially, when Atlanta won its unlikely bid to host the 1996 Olympic Games, city officials, developers, and residents saw it as an unprecedented opportunity for growth and development. And to some extent, they were correct. The Games have long been credited with revitalizing and generating international interest and investment in long-overlooked parts of the city.
By the time the city had begun planning for the games, Techwood Homes, opened in the mid-1930s as the nation’s first public housing project, had been devastated by a lack of continued investment, and crime ushered in by the 1980s crack epidemic. This persistent lack of investment and the predictable decline was common throughout the city’s southside, with the northeast side of the famous CNN Center surrounded by dilapidated industrial buildings, vacant homes, and homeless shelters.
In preparation for what they saw as Atlanta’s international debut, officials emptied Techwood and tore down derelict and vacant homes in Peoplestown and Summerhill, haphazardly replacing those within eyesight of the Olympic stadium. The Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta worked with other state and local agencies, as well as private developers, to repair sidewalks, plant trees, build parks, and speed up construction and improvement project timelines to expand access to public transportation. Viewed in terms of discrete economic development, the games were successful in advancing Atlanta’s standing on both the national and international stage, allowing the city to attract more business, foreign investment, and large-scale events in the subsequent decades.
However, a little more than twenty-five years later, the legacy of those summer games is desperately uneven. While many of the city’s least-resourced residents were excited about the opportunity the games presented, they were disappointed by what they saw as the city’s failure to make good on promises made during the lead-up to the games. High-density housing units and homes in low-income communities were torn down but not replaced. Even after early plans to house Olympic athletes at Techwood were scraped, most of the complex, and an adjacent housing project, were still torn down, removing more than 1,000 affordable homes and displacing 780 families.4 While it was replaced with a mixed-income community, many of the original residents couldn’t meet the job and credit requirements for the complex.
In 2016, the Brookings Institute identified Atlanta, along with Washington D.C., as exhibiting the highest rates of income inequality, with the top five percent of households earning 18 times more than the bottom 20 percent of households in the U.S.5 While former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made affordable rental housing a focus of her 2017 campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent economic recovery, stalled many of her plans. However, in February of 2022, perhaps in a nod to the 1,000 affordable rental units lost in the destruction of Techwood, Andre Dickens, Atlanta’s newly elected Mayor, pledged to build 1,000 new affordable homes over the next five years.
While pledges have little value without commensurate policy action, Mayor Dickens and the Atlanta City Council voted, 14-1, to pass an Affordable Housing Ordinance, which results in, “…any multi-family residential property for lease that receives a grant, incentive, or subsidy in the City of Atlanta will be obligated to adhere to the housing set asides. That means that either 10 percent of the units at 60 percent Area Median Income (AMI) and below or 15 percent of the units at 80 percent AMI and below meet the provisions of the ordinance.” 6
Engaged Community Members and Community-Based Organizations
It is not far-fetched to conclude that Atlanta’s current and immediate past mayors made affordable rental housing such a significant aspect of their campaigns and policy platforms due to the effectiveness of community-based organizations to organize community members, mobilize voters, and lobby for changes in city policy. While several Atlanta non-profits and civic organizations advocate for affordable housing and provide services to those experiencing shelter insecurity, one of the most effective has been the Housing Justice League.
With roots in the Occupy Movement, the Housing Justice League was originally founded as Occupy Our Homes Atlanta (OOHA) in 2014. While the movement originally focused on providing resources to individually impacted residents, the organization later shifted its focus to challenges facing neighborhoods and communities, and citywide policies.
One of the first programs to result from this shift in focus was the “Peoplestown Listening Project,” an effort organized to better understand the priorities and perspectives of longtime residents, many of whom had been impacted by the haphazard neighborhood rejuvenation in the lead up to the 1996 Summer Olympics. In 2016, the organization changed its name to the Housing Justice League to reflect a greater focus on coalition and campaign building, such as #BeltLine4All, which helps residents organize against mass displacement and gentrification.
In 2017, prior to the election of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Housing Justice League released “BeltLining: Gentrification, Broken Promises, and Hope on Atlanta's Southside.” 7 In this report, the Housing Justice League highlighted the role of the Atlanta BeltLine, a 33-mile existing and planned loop of mixed-use trail and a light rail transit system around the center of Atlanta, in contributing to the city’s rapid gentrification and ongoing displacement of long-term residents.8 The Housing Justice League conducted research with neighborhoods and communities, interviewing long-term residents about their understanding of history and sense of community, their hopes and fears for the ongoing project, and offered solutions for how the city of Atlanta could ensure more equitable outcomes for its residents.
Building on the community-generated solutions included in the 2017 report, the Housing Justice League developed the Atlanta Affordable Housing Policy package with the following policy proposals9:
- Re-define affordable – The Housing Justice League demands that the City of Atlanta no longer allow units that target “middle-income” as opposed to “low-income” households be eligible for city subsidies. They also demand an extension in the length requirement for affordable housing to a minimum of 50 years for rental units and 30 years for homeowners.
- Fill vacant housing – The Housing Justice League demands that the City of Atlanta, the largest owner of vacant properties in the city, utilize vacant properties for affordable housing development.
- Sell property to tenants – The Housing Justice League demands the City of Atlanta develop an ordinance that would require the landlords of complexes larger than five (5) units to offer their buildings for sale to a tenants’ association before selling them on the market.
- Cap the property tax rate – The Housing Justice League demands that the City of Atlanta caps the property tax rate for low and moderate-income homeowners.
- Reward landlords for affordable units – The Housing Justice League demands that the City of Atlanta reward, and incentivize, landlords who offer units at affordable rates.
- Mandate rent control – The Housing Justice League demands that the City of Atlanta create rent control measures to prevent individuals from being displaced from their homes given exponential increases in rent.
Though the City of Atlanta has not adopted all the Housing Justice League’s proposals, their community organizing has undoubtedly impacted public perception of the Atlanta BeltLine and other city development projects, the organized way in which communities are attempting to address gentrification, and the significance of affordable housing in the policy agendas of Atlanta’s mayors.
Equitable Outcomes and New Opportunities
In Atlanta and elsewhere, mixed-income housing is consistently offered as a potential solution to the dearth of affordable housing. And in instances where policy development and community planning results from co-operative community engagement, equitable outcomes are more likely.
As with other solutions meant to address largescale problems, mixed-income housing presents both challenges and new opportunities for communities. For example, mixed-income communities, particularly communities with tenant associations, will need to ensure that building plans and policies do not disproportionately impact or exclude lower-income community members. On the other hand, having greater diversity in the economic experiences of community members in the decision-making process can lead tenant associations to more creative solutions that benefit a greater percentage of residents.
Whereas single-family communities are often segregated by income, the socio-economic diversity of mixed-income communities presents an opportunity for authentic ‘knowing’ and understanding that only happens as we connect in the places where we go about the business of ‘living.’ I don’t believe that authentic experiences of diversity, experiences that encourage residents to really think about the lived experiences of another person or to interrogate their own understanding of the world, happen without intention. For that reason, social equity work, like the work uplifted by the National Civic League, is a necessary and intentional component of building and sustaining diverse, engaged communities.
Candice M. Williams is Program Director of Equity and Inclusion for the National Civic League.