In this moment of social transformation, with the country and Atlanta in protest against police brutality, racially driven murder and the structural racism that has impacted the Black community for centuries, the need for development in our cities that recognizes potential displacement and needs of existing residents is more vital than ever.
Atlanta is a tale of two cities, the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, and our development of the built environment and infrastructure is directly related. Equitable development is most relevant now, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the toll it is taking on the economy, workforce and public health, particularly for our most under-resourced and vulnerable communities. There are some harrowing statistics in Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the U.S. related to COVID-19 and the resulting deaths, unemployment and real estate impact. As of June 17, 2020, Georgia ranks 11th for the most cases of coronavirus in the U.S with 59,078 cases.(1) We are seeing a greater proportion African Americans across U.S cities dying from COVID-19, even when they are the minority population.(2) There were 1,041,401 unemployment claims in Georgia in April 2020, which is more than the last four years combined.(3) In April 2020, the metro Atlanta unemployment rate stood at nearly 13%.(4) Metro Atlanta housing sales have dropped by 37% in May 2020.(5) Collier’s International and their Atlanta Research Team are seeing significant economic impacts to the office, retail, multifamily and hospitality sectors.(6)
A history of disparity
Atlanta has been dubbed the “City Too Busy to Hate” which points to the efforts of politicians, businesses and developers in the mid to late 20th century taking a business first approach and promoting economic and real estate development above the underlying issues of race, segregation and inequity. Atlanta was the first city to develop public housing in 1936 and was also the first to dismantle it in the mid-1990’s for a mixed-income housing model. Black and white leaders in government, elected office, business and development put aside systemic issues of race and class for the sake of progress and economic benefit.
However, the benefits and burdens of development have not been distributed equitably or prioritized community needs. As a result, Atlanta has been the poster child for unhappy trends in development, such as white flight, urban sprawl and gentrification. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Atlanta is the fourth fastest gentrifying city in the U.S.(7) Atlanta is also the most inequitable city in the U.S. for the second year in a row, meaning that the ratio of the highest household income compared to the lowest household income is the most pronounced at more than 10:1, whereas nationwide the ratio is closer to 7:1.(8) More than 46% of the city of Atlanta’s census tracts are gentrifying; median rents have increased 28% since 2000, compared to 9% nationally; and the city ranks third nationally for monthly evictions.(9) The way we’ve developed as a city and region is simply not sustainable and has created significant inequities and displacement in our communities. Atlanta has long been a majority Black city and known as the “Black mecca”, but we’re seeing a greater migration of white people moving back to the city than anywhere else in the nation and Black families are having to move to the suburbs where there’s inadequate access to public transportation and employment centers.(10),(11)
We’ve seen neighborhoods such as the Old Fourth Ward, which is the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., double its white population and home sales prices from 2000-2010 and the Pittsburgh neighborhood, ravaged by the 2008 mortgage crisis with vacancies as high as 50%.(12) Neighborhoods along the Atlanta BeltLine have seen housing prices rise as high as 80% in Southwest Atlanta.(13) The City of Atlanta has published a “Neighborhood Gentrification Pressure Areas” map and shows that many south and westside neighborhoods adjacent to the BeltLine corridor, which are predominantly Black and of lower-incomes, are experiencing “high pressure for gentrification” and neighborhoods to the east and north of the corridor have been or will soon be gentrified.(14)
What is the path forward?
So, how can we do better in Atlanta and other cities and regions and facilitate more equitable development that puts people and community needs first? In order to appropriately contextualize and shape development plans and proposals to have a more focused lens on equity, community needs and affordability, in 2015 Southface and the TransFormation Alliance(15) developed the Equity Evaluator Tool (“Tool”). It is based on a robust analysis of community indicators related to area-median income, job access, walkability and more. The Tool can be customized to evaluate the specific needs of local communities and neighborhoods, as well as the physical form of development and appropriate affordability across income levels.
What is the Equity Evaluator Tool?
Who is it for?
How does it work?
Over the last five years, Southface and the TransFormation Alliance have shared the Tool with a variety of partners, stakeholders and community members for their use and to provide input as we refine and update the Tool to be most helpful in shaping more equitable development in Atlanta and beyond. We started using the Tool with MARTA and their transit-oriented development (TOD) program and RFP’s as an added layer of evaluation with an equity lens. The Tool has been used with several of MARTA’s TOD RFP’s. Southface has also engaged with the UN RCE (Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development) Greater Atlanta and the Sustainable Development without Displacement Working Group that provided valuable insights into the Tool and its criteria’s relevance to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and its use with community-based partners and community members. We have been fortunate to work with an Emory University Rollin’s School of Public Health evaluation course to provide an evaluation framework as consideration of where the tool is and where it should go to facilitate more equitable development.
Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. has been a recent user of the Tool as they elevate and commit to equity goals with the development project and in relation to the aforementioned impacts on housing affordability. And to improve the user-friendliness of the Tool and broaden access, we’ve been working with a group of students from Georgia Tech to develop a web-application version of the Tool. We are very excited about the opportunities afforded by this online platform and look forward to launching later this year.
Equity as a way of doing things
Development and equitable development are complicated and multifaceted, requiring an understanding of history, current conditions and opportunities. Equity is not a what, but a way of doing things and a process that requires time to learn and grow together. We must ensure that “quality of life outcomes, such as affordable housing, quality education, living wage employment, healthy environments, and transportation are equitably experienced by the people currently living and working in a neighborhood, as well as for new people moving in”.(16) The Equity Evaluator Tool is one framework to help achieve more equitable development and opportunities for all and encourage Atlanta and other cities to not just be the ”City Too Busy to Hate” but be a place that names its history and works towards a more equitable present and future.