What is Atlanta’s ‘hedgehog’?
By Sarah Kirsch, Executive Director, ULI Atlanta
A city long known for its affordability, hospitality, and warm climate is at cross-roads. When I think about what I want Atlanta’s story to be relative to affordable housing, I don’t want a researcher being quoted in the AJC in five years saying, “we did not act fast enough to preserve, produce or protect affordable housing here.” Some of you may say, “Too late… that ship has sailed.” But I don’t think so. Yes, the window is closing but we have the tools, the ideas, and the leadership to make sure that isn’t the case. We need to collectively commit to making it happen because if anyone can do this, Atlanta can.
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins popularized the idea of finding your ‘hedgehog’, the thing that you can be the best in the world at. The book is written for business but I think the question is relevant for cities too. There may be a few things that Atlanta can be the best in the world at – busiest airport, heart of hip-hop, hospitable business environment – but topping the list in the world of real estate and urbanism has to be creating inclusive communities. It is in our DNA. It is who we are.
This past spring, I was returning to Atlanta having been gone for nearly two weeks and discovered a very cool public art piece had been installed while I was gone. I briefly thought to myself that I could not wait to get a national ULI meeting back to Atlanta because there are so many impressive and surprising things that I want to show off. But I quickly started thinking of the critiques, that this particular piece of public art was perhaps not as impressive as (sic smaller than) something similar we had seen in Texas the previous year. I thought of the developments, the parks, the neighborhoods, the infrastructure that make Atlanta worthy of study and there are many, but I concluded that what I really want to be able to show the rest of the country is how to get it done when it comes to housing affordability. Building inclusive communities is our hedgehog.
We at ULI Atlanta know that we do not have all of the solutions but firmly believe that with partners we can find a path to meaningful progress on housing affordability. We need common understanding of the problems, common goals, and greater trust among all of us who care deeply about our city and region. With that in mind and based on work we have completed over the last six months, the following is a recommended set of guiding principles for what a regional housing strategy might look like:
- A housing strategy that focuses on access to jobs and transportation. For many if not most Atlantans, the cost of transportation is an equal or greater contributor to their cost burden.
- One that recognizes that housing is only one aspect of community and a focus on neighborhood services, including partnerships with schools, is a key factor in creating healthy, mixed-income neighborhoods.
- One that focuses on preservation of existing housing as well as innovative approaches for new construction.
- One that harnesses the power of the marketplace – capital and development – rather than relying on scarce public resources alone, to increase housing production and preservation, particularly for households earning between 60 and 100% of AMI (affording approximately $750 – $1,400/ month in housing costs).
- One that recognizes that developing inclusive communities requires housing at all price points. The need is greatest for housing affordable to households earning below 60% AMI (~$750 per month in housing costs), an affordability level that is primarily met through public subsidy.
- One that finds innovative and creative ways to extend the useful life of existing affordable inventory by implementing a robust housing preservation strategy in many neighborhoods.
So how do we progress? The City of Atlanta is undoubtedly a central player in identifying regional housing solutions (and solutions must be regional). But looking at the data, the need is greater in the city and the city has already put in place more financial and regulatory tools to address the complex issue of housing affordability. Our new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has challenged us all with finding a path to $1 billion in funding for this very purpose. There are a lot of questions to be answered and relationships to build to make this happen but I submit that it is a worthy goal.
The time is now. Let’s not let her down.