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Undefinable housing 

Boomtown Atlanta falls short on affordable living quarters

Five years ago, April Simon lived with a roommate in a two-bedroom Dunwoody apartment. It took 40 minutes -- when traffic was light -- to drive to work downtown. But most days she wished she could just park her car on the side of the gridlocked highway and walk because it would be faster.

After attending seminars on how to buy a home, Simon, 32, learned about a downtown development under construction on West Peachtree Place across from Centennial Olympic Park. She didn't think she'd be able to afford a home in the center of the city on her marketing associate salary. But with the help of Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, a group that advocates for mixed-income housing, Simon bought a 900-square-foot studio loft for $120,000 at Centennial House. Constructed by Novare, a percentage of the condo community was deemed "work force housing."

Simon is one of the fortunate Atlantans who was able to finding affordable housing intown. While groups like ANDP and the Atlanta Development Authority help many workers find affordable housing, the fact is, too few affordable units exist intown to meet the demand of Atlanta's growing work force.

Shannon Carey, an ANDP spokeswoman, says approximately 5,000 affordable units go up in Atlanta each year. But that barely addresses the city's acute shortage of affordable housing -- about 200,000 units are needed to meet the demand. At the current rate, Carey says it would take 40 years for enough units to be built to meet the city's need.

The shortage has housing experts convinced that the city is only paying lip service to one of its most pressing problems.

What's more, housing advocates wonder what constitutes the definition of affordable housing.

In 2002, Mayor Shirley Franklin created a Housing Task Force -- composed of 12 developers including Ken Bleakly of Bleakly Advisory Group and Bruce Gunter of Progressive Redevelopment -- to address the growing problem of intown housing for "working persons." The group published a report stating that 90 percent of the city's resources should be devoted to families of four who make $42,000 to $71,000 a year.

But that excludes most Atlantans who need affordable housing.

Fully 63 percent of metro workers earn less than $40,000 per year, according to an ANDP study released in 2004.

By that calculation, the Housing Task Force report's focus doesn't help those who need affordable housing the most -- the teachers, nurses, policemen, firefighters and retail clerks working in the city.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that a person should spend no more than 30 percent of his or her gross annual income on housing for it to be affordable. That would mean a person making $30,000 a year should spend around $9,000 a year, or $750 a month, on housing. Yet the average new home in metro Atlanta, according to the mayor's Housing Task Force report, goes for at least $169,000, which would cost approximately $1,250 a month -- or $15,000 a year.

That discrepancy has some housing experts, such as the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization, calling for an inclusionary zoning code that would encourage developers -- through incentives -- to build a certain percentage of a development for the work force.

The mayor's Housing Task Force included that recommendation in its final report. But James Shelby, Atlanta commissioner of Planning and Community Development, says the city hasn't proposed such legislation because it's waiting to see how such proposals fare in other communities.

"We tried other mechanisms like a bonus density incentive," Shelby says. "But it hasn't been successful because it hasn't been mandatory."

What's more, earlier this month, a HUD audit cast a bigger shadow over the city's affordable housing program. The report charges that Atlanta misused more than $1 million in federal money. HUD told Atlanta that if two apartment complexes supposedly built with federal dollars -- Proctor Street Apartments and Valena Henderson Apartments -- don't open, the city will have to repay $920,000.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Housing Authority is working on 14 mixed-income developments, including Capitol Homes and Grady Homes, two-thirds of which will be made affordable.

Outside the city, both Fulton and DeKalb counties are floating affordable housing proposals. Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts has proposed that 10 percent to 20 percent of new construction units be required to be affordable.

In DeKalb, Commissioner Burrell Ellis says a proposed ordinance would mandate affordable housing at job centers, such as Stonecrest Mall and around the Perimeter. A stronger proposal recommended for the entire county was weakened after developers objected.

"Developers have a lot of power in Atlanta," Carey says. "It's difficult for lawmakers to step out on a limb even if they support the idea. It can make or break them."

Pitts pointed to Montgomery County, Md., a Washington, D.C., suburb that requires inclusionary zoning with bonus incentives for developers. It has resulted in the construction of more than 15,000 affordable units over three decades.

"We've got to provide living quarters for the worker bees," Pitts says. "We have to be working out some sort of compromise with the development community and work through the obstacles."

The true test of Atlanta's definition of affordable will come if the Beltline proposal passes. On Monday, the ADA agreed to set aside 15 percent of the new units for teachers and staffers of Atlanta's schools. The Beltline's funding mechanism, a tax allocation district, would generate between $220 million and $260 million for approximately 5,600 affordable housing units, says David Payne, a spokesman for the Beltline Partnership. Payne added that the creation of a Beltline Trust Fund could lead to a new definition of affordable housing.

Simon now lives three miles from her office and enjoys walking to Centennial Olympic Park to read, and to the CNN Center for lunch.

"I never thought of myself as a city person because I never thought I could afford it," Simon says. "But with the right resources, so many others can live the same way I'm living."

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