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Across U.S., mayors’ ambitious plans to address affordable housing draw skepticism

As rents keep rising, mayors in Atlanta, San Jose, New York City, and Philadelphia plan to create more affordable housing. Which idea will work?

Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood has experienced gentrification in recent years. Many residents are struggling to find rentals they can afford.
Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood has experienced gentrification in recent years. Many residents are struggling to find rentals they can afford.Read more

ATLANTA — Meshell North is stuck.

A lifelong Atlanta resident, information technology worker, and grandmother of four, North resides in an apartment on the city’s northwest side. She’d like to move into a house, but the prices are out of her reach.

“I can’t afford to move out,” said North, who rented a house before the Great Recession and then was forced to leave when its owner entered foreclosure. “I’ve been looking for houses to rent, and there are so many scams out there. The houses you do see ask an arm and a leg for a garage. It’s crazy out there.”

As in many other cities across the nation, Atlanta’s housing costs are rising fast, so much so that many middle- and lower-income residents are forced to leave because they can’t keep up. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, pledged $1 billion toward creating or preserving 20,000 affordable-housing units by 2026, with half the money from public funds and half from private.

Bottoms is one of several mayors tackling affordable housing.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, issued an aggressive promise for her tenure — 36,000 new units by 2025, 12,000 of them affordable. She challenged her counterparts in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia to build 240,000 more over the same time frame.

In 2017, San Jose, Calif., Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, set a goal to build 25,000 new homes by 2023, 10,000 of them rent-subsidized, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, aims to create or preserve 300,000 affordable units by 2026.

And in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council agreed last year to use money generated from expiring 10-year property tax abatements to fund affordable housing. That real estate tax revenue, plus other funding, is expected to generate $71 million for affordable housing initiatives over the next five years. The agreement between the mayor’s administration and City Council came just a month before Philadelphia released an equitable housing “action plan,” which sets a goal of creating new housing opportunities for 36,500 households in the next decade.

Yet the ambitious plans from coast to coast are facing mounting criticism. Some housing advocates assert that city officials don’t fully grasp the scope of the problem and aren’t moving quickly enough to address it.

Atlanta’s plan “talks about coming up with new revenue sources, but doesn’t name them or put a dollar figure on them,” said Dan Immergluck, a professor in the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “There’s not a commitment for new city money.”

He urges Atlanta to take bolder and more specific actions, including approving $250 million in bonds, dedicating hotel/motel taxes toward affordable housing, and raising property taxes.

Atlanta’s strategies

Inland Southern cities such as Atlanta have long been viewed as cheaper alternatives to coastal metros. Yet in some Atlanta neighborhoods, more than 72% of residents are “rent-burdened,” defined as spending more than 30% of one’s income on housing.

City leaders are particularly focused on Atlanta households earning below 60% of area median income, or roughly $28,000 for an individual. Strategies include building units on publicly owned vacant land, rehabilitating units where people already live, upzoning for duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units (ADUs), easing parking requirements, and ensuring that landlords accept housing vouchers.

Although Immergluck agrees with the mayor’s overall goals, he wishes the city were moving faster.

“We’re seven years into this affordable housing crisis,” he said. “These ideas have been floating around for a long time, yet there’s no legislation. Where are the ordinances?”

For residents such as North, the need for quick action is paramount.

“People are coming in and remodeling houses, then putting them back up for sale,” North said. “If they’re going to do that, they need to provide some kind of program to help people buy those houses and have them be affordable.”

No solution off the table in San Jose

With four years to go, San Jose stands more than 9,000 units short of reaching 10,000 affordable homes by 2023. The city reports 946 affordable units completed or under construction, with an additional 2,441 in the pipeline.

Funding is a major concern. San Jose’s housing director, Jacky Morales-Ferrand, estimates that more than $520 million is needed to meet the city’s 10,000-unit goal. Apartment rents in San Jose grew 50% between 2010 and 2018, with the median now $2,600 a month for a two-bedroom unit.

One conundrum is that it costs cities more to house very-low-income earners — the lower the income, the more subsidy needed for housing. But because of high land costs in California, developers need high rents to justify building expenses.

Largely suburban San Jose aims for more downtown residential high-rises, more ADUs, and more down-payment assistance for first-time buyers.

“No solution is off the table,” Morales-Ferrand said. The city has earmarked nearly $100 million toward affordable housing projects over the next several years.

New York aims for 300,000 units

Based on numbers, the most ambitious mayoral goal is de Blasio’s 300,000 affordable units created or preserved in New York by 2026. It’s a large figure even for a place with more than eight million residents.

However, a Manhattan-based tenants’ advocacy group argues that targeting a number may be the wrong approach.

“A simple unit count isn’t always the best way to measure whether we’re actually addressing the needs of New Yorkers who are most at risk of displacement or homelessness,” said Emily Goldstein of the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development.

Goldstein favors metrics such as reductions in homelessness or rent-burdened households, which “get closer to the heart of how people are actually experiencing the affordability crisis.”

Instead, as New York and other major cities continue drawing new residents and educated young professionals, Goldstein said, it’s important to ensure that longtime residents can choose to stay.

“Folks are being priced out, and they’ve seen their neighborhoods priced out,” she said. “They want to have the option to feel secure in their home and stay in a community where they’ve been for decades. Their church, their doctor, their friends, and their family is there. No one should have to pick up and move unless they actually want to go.”

Staff writer Caitlin McCabe contributed to this article.