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Southwest residents fear being cut out of the beltline 

Many worry that rising property taxes will kick them off a fast-moving train

Clarice Mackie has seen this sort of thing before.

There was big talk about the 1996 Olympics revitalizing West End and other southwest Atlanta neighborhoods. But besides a few streetscape improvements, nothing happened.

Then, along came the Beltline. Mackie, a community activist and self-proclaimed "Grady baby," says city officials indicated the first leg of the 22-mile loop of parks and transit would be built just south of West End – that it would bring jobs, affordable housing and much needed development to the beleaguered area. But in August, the Atlanta Regional Commission, faced with a transportation funding shortfall, removed the western portion of the proposed transit loop from its list of recommended projects.

"We're looking forward to the same benefits of the Beltline down here, just as [people] are on the north side," Mackie says. "We just don't know if we'll see it."

Mackie and many of her neighbors are now worried that West End, Capitol View, Adair Park and other parts of the Beltline's southwest quadrant won't be a part of the party. Or more aptly, that they'll be packing their belongings just as the Beltline soiree gets underway.

"It's fatigue," says Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, a nonprofit think and "act" tank, speaking of the emotions expressed by some residents. "It's like, 'Here we go with another promise, we're going to get shuffled around again, and the city is going to be rebuilt – but without us.' There's a systemic mistrust. But it's incumbent upon the city, county, planners and community-based organizations to develop a better discourse."

Not only have doubts now been raised about what shape the Beltline will take in southwest Atlanta, but real estate speculation has been jacking up home prices since the project was announced a few years ago. And property taxes have followed. Predatory lending and the recent clampdown on credit are only making things worse.

Take a drive down Tift Avenue near Adair Park, and you'll find almost as many shuttered homes as you will occupied ones; just count the number of "for sale" signs and boarded-up homes throughout the neighborhoods. It's little surprise that West End's 30310 recently placed an unfortunate second on a CNN list of the nation's ZIP Codes hit hardest by foreclosures.

Many folks who've held on to their homes are straining. Beulah Colbert, a 40-year resident of Adair Park, was paying $368 in property taxes two years ago. She was floored by her most recent bill: $740. Speculators come knocking three to four times a month and offer to purchase her home, she says. She refuses to follow friends who take them up on the offer, saying she would "sit in the dark and eat cold beans if I have to because I'm not losing my home." But Colbert is setting aside an extra $50 each month because she expects her tax bills to continue to rise.

Mackie, who coordinates the Beltline Partnership's Southwest Beltline Study Group, says some speculators are snatching up properties two or three at a time, then flipping the homes, or demolishing them and erecting pricier ones in their place.

"Mortgage fraud plus housing speculators with inaccurate assessments – this is like the Great Land Rush – makes a recipe for disaster," says Scott, who, as a member of a Beltline advisory committee, stresses that she's "pro-Beltline but also pro-historic neighborhoods."

While quarrels over development along the Beltline's upscale northeastern quadrant have generated more ink, Georgia Tech city planning professor Dan Immergluck says the southwest "definitely is the area that's seen the most impact of the Beltline, and that doesn't affect just owners but also renters." Immergluck is the author of a recent report released by Georgia Stand-Up that found property taxes along the Beltline's southern crescent have risen sharply since the project was proposed.

"Someone said to me recently they went to one of these study group meetings on the southwest side and the group was just hostile to the planners that were there," Immergluck said. "And I'm like, well, you know, if you saw your taxes go up by 200 percent in three years, you might be hostile, too. Or if you heard about it and saw your rent go up. Some of it is feeling left out historically and what happened with the Olympics, or what didn't happen, but I think a lot of it is on-the-ground reality about affordability."

Beltline planners say they don't want people to lose their homes. The project calls for 5,600 new affordable housing units adjacent to the transit loop. But those homes are still years off. "By the time that stuff gets built," Immergluck says, "many of these folks will be gone."

The Atlanta Beltline Partnership and Atlanta Beltline Inc. – the organizations charged with developing the project – are investigating solutions that might tide residents over. Among the ideas: community land trusts – nonprofit corporations similar to co-ops – in which land is acquired and secured for low-income residents.

Immergluck and Georgia Stand-Up release their own recommendations. They suggest that the city help hard-pressed homeowners with delinquent-tax-payment programs, financial counseling, land banks, and housing trust funds, as well as impose impact fees for construction projects that don't include affordable housing. Most important, Immergluck said: Allow low-income homeowners to defer taxes until they sell their homes.

While Southwest Atlantans ponder setting aside $50 a month, or packing up and moving elsewhere, the project that promises to improve their neighborhoods rolls – all the while fueling the rise in property taxes.

At a recent West End community meeting at the neighborhood's library branch, representatives from the PATH Foundation, Trees Atlanta and Atlanta Beltline Inc. unveiled plans to begin construction Jan. 1 on a two-mile, paved trail in the neighborhood. Funds from a $350,000 grant to Trees Atlanta from the Arthur Blank Foundation will go toward installing an arboretum. New sidewalks, new trees, new amenities. The planners called the trail the Beltline's "model segment."

"Parks first, development follows, and then transit," Ed McBrayer, executive director of the PATH Foundation, told the residents. Where the people fit in that equation remains to be seen.

Fulton County Tax Assessor (http://www.fultonassessor.org/Main/Home.aspx) and the Fulton County Taxpayers Association (http://www.fcta.us/) offer advice on how to reduce your property taxes.

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