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Atlanta's Mayoral Runoff Could Come Down To Affordable Housing. Here's Where The Candidates Stand

Affordable housing and gentrification are likely to be front-and-center issues in this year’s Atlanta mayoral election, now down to its final two candidates, Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore and Council Member Andre Dickens, who will square off in a Nov. 30 runoff.

Much of the build-up to Tuesday’s general election also centered on the increase in the city’s crime, but now that former Mayor Kasim Reed has conceded after running a close third behind Dickens, affordability is likely to come to the fore, said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the School for Public & International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

The front door to the Atlanta City Hall.

“Reed stressed during his campaign that the city was safer when he was mayor and he was going to restore that. They're not going to hear that message now,” Bullock said. “Questions about housing seem to be [the] No. 2 [campaign topic] anyway. Now it may get additional traction as less attention is paid to crime.”

Moore told Bisnow in an email Thursday that, if she were elected, she would seek to balance smart growth with more housing and to make sure that developments and property tax increases don’t displace low-income families and seniors.

“We are in the midst of a housing crisis in Atlanta, and while changing to an all-subsidized housing system isn’t what I’m advocating for, we need to have public-private partnerships that leverage underutilized assets,” Moore said. “This will address affordable housing from multiple angles. We also need to revisit our policies to make sure they align with our goals of adding attainable and affordable housing.”

Dickens told Bisnow in an interview Friday morning that affordability is becoming a critical issue in the city, where many low- and middle-income families are now spending in excess of 30% of their household income on housing.

“That leaves them little room to have a balanced life,” Dickens said. "We need to be careful to not become a San Francisco, where people drive in during the day but can't afford to stay there at night."

Dickens received the endorsement from the Atlanta Realtors Political Action Committee, the political arm of both the Atlanta Realtors Association and the Atlanta Commercial Board of Realtors, in October.

“To have them trust me to be the next mayor of Atlanta, it should say a lot,” Dickens said.

Some real estate experts Bisnow interviewed after Election Day said Dickens — who surprised many by topping Reed — is the stronger candidate on the issue of affordability and housing equity.

“There are two city councilmen who really got in and got their hands dirty: It's Andre Dickens and Andrew Westmoreland,” said Margaret Stagmeier, the founder of TriStar Real Estate Investment. “Andre has been active around affordable housing for years now. It's not just a stance he's taking.”

Stagmeier, whose company invests and creates affordable housing communities connected to social services with local public schools, contributed $500 to Dickens’ campaign, according to Dickens’ Nov. 1 campaign contribution report.

“[Moore] has not been as visible around efforts to actually build a grassroots affordable housing delivery system,” Stagmeier said. “I think Andre has proven to be really innovative and push the agenda and not just talk about it.”

Dickens and Moore both stressed the need to add affordable housing units to the city’s stock, and both promote the idea that city-owned land be used in part to build more affordable housing projects.

“We must balance smart growth with the need for more housing,” Moore said in an email. "We can do that by acquiring more City of Atlanta property by using our housing authority and land bank to create permanent, deeply affordable housing that is concentrated near walking, biking and transit lines."

Under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who didn't seek re-election, Atlanta launched a program in April that will look to turn land holdings along the BeltLine totaling 877 acres and 490 parcels into housing projects to beef up the city's affordable stock.

City officials previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a partnership among the Metro Atlanta Land Bank, the Atlanta Housing Authority and Invest Atlanta, which is leading the project, would start with four sites: three single-family properties in southwest Atlanta and an apartment project in Downtown.

Dickens endorsed similar plans, saying he wants to build or preserve 20,000 housing units for low-income renters and homebuyers over the next eight years.

Aside from building new affordable units, Dickens said preventing older, lower-priced apartments that get flipped to new developers from becoming luxury units needs to be part of the housing solution, especially when it could keep kids from low-income families in good schools. That can be done through tax incentives and also lowering the bar on city building codes.

“There are kids that go to school in Virginia Highlands who couldn't today find a home in Virginia Highlands,” he said Friday. “If those properties go luxury, you lose that population in that school.”

Moore said her housing policies would include encouraging a variety of different types of housing in the city, and said she would host community conversations to convince neighborhoods to host shelters and other housing facilities — including turning vacant buildings and property into low-barrier shelters for “deeply affordable housing” — in an effort to defeat NIMBYism, often an impediment to new housing development. She also said she would create a displacement fund to keep legacy and senior residents in their homes.

But Moore said she is not for a blanket citywide inclusionary zoning ordinance, as a “one-size-fits-all policy would negatively affect the tapestry of Atlanta’s unique neighborhoods” that would fail to actually increase attainable and affordable housing supply. She pushed for more accessory dwelling units and new formats of housing.

“Just down the road in Clarkston, a nonprofit developer built a first-of-its-kind, micro-cottage community with price points at $100K-$150K, an incredibly accessible price compared to the surrounding area," Moore wrote. "I think Atlanta can also get more creative about the types of projects we are building.”

Dickens has proposed other ideas for affordable housing: putting permitting fees collected from developers toward speeding up the permit process to help lower development costs, freezing property assessments, especially for elderly or legacy Atlanta homeowners so rising property values don't push them out, and increasing density — including duplexes and triplexes — “in the right places.”

Dickens also proposed expanding inclusionary zoning to spur more units attainable for renters making 30% or less of the area median income, increase services to low-income families such as daycare, after-school programs, grocery stores, health and banking services, and give automatic property tax exemptions to nonprofit developers, according to his campaign website.

While Dickens has snagged second place, he still faces a long shot to win the mayoral seat, UGA's Bullock said. Dickens received 22,153 votes — 23% of those who voted — versus Moore's 39,202 votes, a 40.8% share in the field of more than a dozen candidates. The second-place candidate has only overtaken the lead candidate 30% of the time in past elections, Bullock said.

Regardless of who wins, the next administration will have a strong track record of tackling affordability, said Kirk Rich, a principal at Avison Young who also is on the Atlanta Housing Board of Commissioners.

“I went to several of the forums, and I think Andre and Felicia ... get the need for affordable housing. I think Washington, especially [the Department of Housing and Urban Development], would be pleased with any of the candidates,” Rich said. “I think the really good news for Atlanta right now is we have two very seasoned candidates with different skill sets. But both of them have the skill sets around housing.”

Rich said Dickens understands how technology can go into addressing affordable housing, while Moore has had years as leader of the city council to address the issues.

“From the development perspective, I think everybody will be happy," Rich said. "At the end of the day, we all have the same interests in mind, which is keeping Atlanta a great place to live with a diverse population and diverse housing supply.”

UPDATE, NOV. 5, 11:20 A.M. ET: This story has been updated with additional commentary from Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens.