Two years of Westside Future Fund
By John Ahmann, Westside Future Fund
The Friday before last, September 21, 2018, I was honored to give the second annual update on behalf of the Westside Future Fund (WFF). Just over a year after expanding our board and team, WFF has made significant strides as an “accelerator” of the revitalization of Atlanta’s historic Westside neighborhoods. We are particularly proud of the progress we’ve spurred in two areas: cradle-to-career education and mixed-income communities. You can find the slides I presented during the update here.
Over the last two and a half years serving as President/CEO of WFF, I’ve been personally impacted by the resilience of the residents of these historic neighborhoods, and deeply inspired by the spiritual strength and history of pursuing justice present here. It was in 2016, while we were working to develop the Westside Land Use Action Framework, that I first read a soaring essay by long-time Vine City resident Makeda Johnson. In that she describes our collective revitalization efforts in the context of the “Beloved Community”, a concept championed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Please read the essay, “Fulfilling our vision of the Beloved Community” here. To quote three key paragraphs:
Gentrification can be managed and provides an opportunity for Atlanta, Georgia, to honor its most noted son and drum major for social justice: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Atlanta can once again shine as an urban American city “Too Busy to Hate.” We can redefine the G word. We are in a moment of opportunity for the creation of the “Beloved Community,” a community of racial and economic diversity.
But it will not just happen, it must be intentionally developed. It is simple, but requires authentic partnership between community, political and private stakeholders committed to the possibility of the “Beloved Community.” It will require a resident retention plan that prevents forced displacement, inclusionary affordable housing policy that supports mixed income and racial diversity by acknowledging the area median income, and a tax abatement program to protect vulnerable home and business owners.
On behalf of the board and team of WFF, I am pleased to report 62 homeowners have enrolled in WFF’s Anti-Tax Displacement Fund program. Announced in 2017, this philanthropic fund will cover future tax increases for qualifying legacy resident homeowners. The purpose of the program is to protect legacy homeowners from the inevitable increase in property taxes as revitalization efforts continue. Neighborhood data indicate another 350 residents likely qualify for the program. Through a partnership with Integrity CDC two neighborhood residents are going door-to-door, working to enroll as many homeowners as possible. Thanks to support from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation (AMBFF), all qualifying applicants also receive free assistance with title clearing. This is a big win because it will help many homeowners repair a broken chain of title to retain a valuable family asset, passed down from the previous generation. Now that the program is up and running, we will also be checking to see if any homeowners are falling behind on their property taxes as of 2016 and, for those homeowners who have, increase our efforts to reach them.
While it is crucial to prevent—as Makeda Johnson puts it—the “forced displacement” of homeowners, research indicates that only 8% of residents in the historic Westside neighborhoods own their homes. Of the 92% of residents who rent, only 20% are in high-quality, affordable units at properties managed either by Atlanta Housing or a few nonprofits like Quest Community Development Corporation. The majority of available rental units are owned by investors from outside the community. Many of these units are being rented to residents who earn less than $20,000 a year—individuals and families who are at the highest risk of forced displacement as neighborhood rents rise.
This is all happening against the backdrop of some restricted policy options for the City. First, Georgia does not allow the City of Atlanta to impose rent control; nor under the U.S. and Georgia State constitutions can the City seize or condemn a piece of property because the owner is raising rents or selling to take advantage of market conditions. This points to one primary strategy to mitigate displacement for WFF and its partners: increase the supply of high-quality affordable rental through acquisition, development, and redevelopment. Since the start of 2018, we’ve been working hard on this front and are proud to share that WFF currently has 119 units either under development, awarded or occupied, with more units in the pipeline. Thanks to philanthropic support from corporate partners and independent foundations, WFF is laying the groundwork to keep a high percent of neighborhood rental units affordable, that is, at or less than 30% of a resident’s income.
Today, we remain focused on the urgent and pressing challenge of acquiring and developing more high-quality, affordable rental units. Thanks to a clarion call from Mayor Bottoms, who has set a $1 billion public/private goal to support anti-displacement/affordable housing, we are receiving strong support from foundations and enjoy a vibrant working partnership with her Administration. At the same time, we are working to put to leverage the philanthropic and below-market private funds WFF has raised. Look for announcements in the months ahead. Mayor Bottoms and her Administration are laser focused on the affordable housing challenge our city faces and we are grateful for their partnership.
Since first reading Makeda’s essay and reflecting on the meaning of the “Beloved Community,” I have come to appreciate Dr. King’s assertion that manifesting this ideal requires both a quantitative and qualitative change. Quantitative in that we cannot claim the model of the “Beloved Community” if we don’t retain significant numbers of legacy homeowners and renters. This is a heavy lift given the velocity of market forces and the unfortunate greed of speculators who want to demand exorbitant prices. But I think an even bigger lift is the qualitative change, which for me means treating one another in a “beloved” manner, grounded in compassion. We have a natural tendency to be shy about embracing the “other,” especially individuals who do not look like us or share similar backgrounds. I will admit this has been true for me. But on this journey, I am learning from leaders like long-time English Avenue resident Mother Mamie Moore and Chick-fil-A Chairman/CEO/President Dan Cathy. I have watched them both at our Transform Westside Summits treat all whom they encounter with dignity, respect, and compassion.
My personal north star is Atlanta native and Nobel prize winner Dr. King. I am deeply inspired by his writings and speeches but most importantly, by his actions. He never gave into violence, he never gave into anger. His last adult home, one that he and Coretta purchased in 1965, is in Vine City at 234 Sunset Avenue. In a nod to his residency and life actions, WFF has adopted as our vision: a community Dr. King would be proud to call home. I know, and the entire WFF team knows, this collective effort must be aimed at community retention and compassionate interaction between residents and non-residents alike. For the sake of the historic Westside and our city, let’s continue working together to make this vision a reality.