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Friday, July 26, 2013

A conversation with City Council candidate Robert Welsh

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  • Courtesy Robert Welsh

Vacant homes bother Robert Welsh.

The Peoplestown resident watched the problem get increasingly worse over the years and saw very little action taken. So he decided to take matters into his own hands at a run for Atlanta City Council.

"I got really sick and tired of being sick and tired of the city not paying attention to the vacant housing issue," Welsh says.

When CL recently sat down with Welsh at Octane Coffee in Grant Park, he not only spoke to the issues negatively impacting the neighborhoods in his district, but also offered thorough solutions to many of those problems. And that's not something you necessarily see from every municipal candidate. He's a bit of a policy wonk - one who works as a budget manager for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities - but says he's not afraid to find solutions to widespread problems in District 1.

Welsh - who last period raised $1,989.59 in cash and $6,075.00 in-kind donations - also talked about the new Falcons stadium, southeast Atlanta's recent crime wave, his opponent Carla Smith, and a slew of other topics. We've included some excerpts from the lengthy conversation below:

You mentioned that the new Falcons stadium is one of the biggest issues you've had a problem with. Can you explain your thoughts on that and how Council handled it?

Here's what I see. My litmus is pretty simple. If people don't want to live around it, it brings into question a lot about a particular project and whether something that is purported to be an economic catalyst, something that's going to revitalize [the area]. You've got to question, you've got to put a human face on development and if the folks don't want to live in and around it, it kind of brings a lot of questions in my mind.

That being said, I would not have voted for it under the way that it was brought to the City Council, particularly without a very robust and very specific plan that laid out exactly what the city was going to do with those dollars, what they were going to invest in the community, what the church's plans are, what those community group's plans are, and just having some real details about what they plan to do. If you're going to use public money, it needs to work. The idea that we're getting a better deal just because it's more money than some other place got to publicly fund a stadium, to me is kind of like, what are you really comparing it to?

I would not have supported it under the way that it was brought, I would have voted against it simply because you just have way too many problems without a real plan that really kind of paralleled what the Council was voting [on] and they didn't have a lot of time to review it. There were a lot of questions - and I was at a lot of those hearings - around the validity of the numbers. I thought what was interesting was some of the sports economists and some of their viewings and some of the things that I've read and studied as it relates to the issue. But to keep it simple: Can you get people to move there? Can you get people to move around the community? I think that's the test. So I wouldn't have supported it the way that it was brought to the Council chamber.

You live in Peoplestown, close to Turner Field. What's your take on the possible plans for development around the baseball stadium? What would you hope to see built in that area?

We've been talking about it from what I understand for more than 12 years now! We've been talking about it for more than a decade. So it's time for the talk to stop and for the city and Invest Atlanta to make sure that a plan actually comes to fruition.

I have seen ... some schematics that included some public parks and commercial and residential, I think it's a great idea. But again I just have to stress, listen, we cannot build our way out of the problems that we have in this district. We just can't.

We have very high unemployment across District 1, it's almost 20 percent. It's higher than the national average, it's definitely higher than the city average, we're going to have to do better. I'm for it. I think we need to make it happen, but we need to be smart about it - [and create] things like community benefit agreements, those things are important.

We do have a need for affordable housing, particularly in that corridor, we have a lot of low income housing that is not on the up and up - it doesn't look appealing. I'm sure the landowners would disagree, but in my view, a lot of those residents probably deserve to be in a facility that's better managed and better kept up in terms of maintenance and security. Particularly, any of those residents who are receiving public subsidies in the form of Project Based Section 8. We have several of those.

We just don't want anything there, we want it to be an inclusive process, because if it's not inclusive and the residents don't really have a chance to weigh in on it and the neighborhoods don't have a chance to weigh in on it, that's a problem for me.

Both sports stadiums aside, what would be among the first issues you would tackle if elected as District 1's Councilman?

Vacant homes. The great recession has left the city of Atlanta, particularly the south side and District 1, but particularly south of I-20, with a surplus of vacant homes that is plaguing the city. It's an epidemic of monumental proportions. We have way too many.

Here we are, 2013, we're still living with this issue, and I just don't feel like the city and council and the mayor's office have really made it a priority. If we want to talk about development and job creation, you're going to have to make Atlanta an intown destination. You're going to have to make it a desirable place for people to live ... Our homes and our streets [and] our communities are the lifeblood of the city. So once we get an idea of how many we're talking about, I'm going to be pushing for some local policies and what I call Welcome Home Atlanta, where the city takes the lead in coordinating an initiative to do a few things: one of them is to take an inventory of all the vacant homes, take account, and then pivots to focus on contiguous development in those communities hardest hit. And the way they do that is an aggressive marketing campaign to encourage people to move into the city and to use financial incentives to do so, to incentivize their behavior ... vacant housing represents everything that's wrong with this city and what's wrong with our local culture. So for me that's number one policy issue.

I really want to see other councilmembers come on board, come drive through Lakewood, come visit Thomasville Heights, and realize that even if you live in Buckhead or you live here in Grant Park that this problem has an impact. It will drive your property taxes up, it will make your area less safe, crime follows the path of least resistance and it will find you and these areas are just a hotbed for crime like you wouldn't believe. We have whole neighborhoods that are empty. It's a problem.

Talk to me a bit about your thoughts on the recent crime wave plaguing southeast Atlanta, including much of District 1.

It's sad. I don't relish having to keep a weapon in my home, but I do. I have bars on my windows. I have a security door on my front door. It's just a fact of life. I'm not going to say that I feel unsafe because I haven't had any problems, by and large, but I can't speak for everybody and we're just going to have to be smarter.

Things like having the police walk around instead of driving around, we need to have more checkpoints, more roadblocks. We do need a larger presence of police. But again, the issue is how are you going to pay for them? ... One of the ideas I have also is a social impact bond. We had many folks that are coming in and out of the criminal justice system in Southeast Atlanta. We know that's a fact. What a social impact bond does is it's a pay-for-performance contract where [we] go to the private sector, go to the capital markets, and raise some money for a preventative program to keep people from entering the criminal justice system. And if a vendor or a contractor is successful at reducing let's say the recidivism rate from 60 percent to 30 percent, [then that reduction] is worth a few million dollars. They can save the government money, they can make a few dollars and they can actually keep people from entering the criminal justice system, providing them with soft skills, hard skills, job training, GED programs and the like, so that they would actually change their behaviors.

It's being done in New York. I'd like to see that here in Atlanta. I think that we have some pretty big institutions that might be able to help us out. We're going to have to address the hard issue and crime is complex. What I tell folks is [that] people typically don't steal for sport, rob people for sport, they do it typically out of necessity, out of malice, out of not having any real sense of what's right and what's wrong. For too many folks, our poverty rate is so high we're just essentially leaving people to put themselves in a position that makes us all a little worse off.

What prompted you to run for Council this year?

I got really sick and tired of being sick and tired of the city not paying attention to the vacant housing issue. Also, you can't have a City Council member who sticks their head in the sand and refuses to acknowledge disparity ... Last year, when we had an issue with our school system and the current councilmember decided that they weren't going to come out and say anything to keep the schools open, you say, you know what, no school should be closed in our district because we know schools are institutions. If you want to talk about changing the community, the first thing you have to do is figure out how to make inroads into that school because the first question the parents will ask is "how are the schools?"

You're referring to Carla Smith?

Yes, I'm referring to Carla. [Her actions] let me know that there's a serious lack of leadership because what you're doing is you're not addressing the broader issues, right? You're not addressing the stuff that's under all of the other issues like the crime and the bad schools if you don't acknowledge that there's a problem. If you're not willing to do that, how are you going to be in a position to even consider solving problems?

I think low-hanging fruit is great. If the trash doesn't get picked up, if there's a tree that needs trimming and it's on the city right of way, we need to respond. But you're going to have to focus on the tough issues. What I didn't hear was somebody who was focused on the tough issues. Folks deserve better than that, they definitely deserve a choice at minimum, and that's why I decided to run. We need to focus on broader issues; we need somebody who understands social policy, social finance, and how things work.

Why do you think you can win against her in this year's election?

I don't think Carla's a bad person. When I told her face-to-face that I was going to run against her, I said: "Carla, you know, this isn't about you. It's not about me. This is about the district."

When you look at the profile of the district, you're going to have to pay attention. The numbers are what the numbers are. You've got almost a 30-percent poverty rate, you've got certain communities that almost have a 70-percent poverty rate, and so here's where I think my opponent has not done a good job. She simply has not represented the interest of the entire district ... You're going to have to represent the interest of everybody and you can't stick your head in the sand. For me, like I said, I think she means well but you just can't stick your head in the sand. You have to embrace the differences, acknowledge the disparities, and then maybe you can have a conversation about how you're going to solve a problem. But if you're not even willing to admit it, that's a lost cause. So we want to give folks the choice.

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