In its latest move to put affordable housing at the forefront of the city’s North End redevelopment plans, the advocacy group Sandy Springs Together hosted Atlanta BeltLine officials to discuss that project’s gentrification debate and affordability shortcomings.

Around 120 people attended the Nov. 7 meeting at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church to hear from Dwayne Vaughn, Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s vice president of housing policy and development, and David Jackson, deputy executive director of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, a nonprofit that backs ABI’s programs. The moderator was Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.

From left, Bill Bolling moderates a panel with Dwayne Vaughn and David Jackson at a Nov. 7 meeting held by affordable housing advocacy group Sandy Springs Together. (Hannah Greco)

A controversial redevelopment effort based on a report by the city’s North End Revitalization Task Force is in its early stages. A major recommendation in the report is a multiuse path called the Greenway. Advocates liken it to the BeltLine in terms of possible redevelopment, while others warn it could bring BeltLine-style gentrification and displacement of existing residents.

“Cities usually focus on individual projects,” said Melanie Couchman, who co-founded Sandy Springs Together with husband David, at the meeting. “In our case, it is a trail system, a shopping center revitalization…access to the river and other improvements. But what will that do to the rents and the property taxes?”The Couchmans were co-chairs of the North End task force and say the final report does not do enough for housing affordability and preservation. At the beginning of the task force process last year, Mayor Rusty Paul cited the BeltLine as a cautionary example.

The BeltLine is currently a loop of paths and green space being built around central Atlanta. Its concept also included a mass-transit rail line that is still in the planning stages. The BeltLine was expected to spark major real estate development, so its planners set goals to create affordable housing units along its path to help reduce displacement.

In 2006, the project planned to have 5,600 affordable units by 2030. With 10 years left to reach its goal, the BeltLine currently has 1,640 affordable units, a shortfall that caused major controversy and reform efforts. Ryan Gravel, the urban planner who first envisioned the BeltLine, resigned from the Partnership’s board in 2016, citing concerns about its public mission, especially affordable housing.

Vaughn said in hindsight, the BeltLine would have tried to control the land around the project better before it began.

“He who controls the land can control affordability,” Vaughn said. “We were a little late in the game.”

Jackson said when it comes to citywide projects that affect a large section of the community, citizens have to speak up.

“The only way that I have seen…to hold government and project management accountable is [for] the citizens to demand metrics and measurements and scoreboards upfront, hold elected officials responsible to score on those scoreboards, and take action when they don’t,” Jackson said.

Vaughn said in Atlanta, there is an inclusionary zoning ordinance in the BeltLine area that requires a developer of 10 units or more of rental housing to make a percentage of the units affordable. Affordability rates are based on the area median income of the city.

Sandy Springs does not have inclusionary zoning, but has attempted some individual pilot programs in affordable housing. It has worked out a 10-year agreement with two apartment complexes, requiring units to be set aside for workforce housing, which is intended to ensure housing for primarily middle-income, but also lower-income, households. The city is also offering discount rents to police officers and firefighters in houses it is purchasing on Hammond Drive for a possible widening project.

The North End task force was supposed to create a citywide affordable housing policy as part of its effort, but did not, and the future of that effort remains unclear.

Vaughn said through the BeltLine, he learned that the project managers need to be flexible on their agenda and value community input.

“Sometimes when you have an agenda, that is not what the community wants to talk about and you need to be flexible enough to say, ‘Yes, we have our agenda, but we hear that you want to talk about something else, and we are here, so let’s talk about it,’” Vaughn said.

Officials attending the meeting included City Councilmember John Paulson and state Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs).

McLaurin said the community has to consciously make affordability a goal in the early stages of the development process.

“A community can’t ensure affordability in new development unless its members and political leaders want that outcome and start working towards it early in the development process,” McLaurin said.

Shea Roberts, who has announced a campaign against state Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs), also attended, saying she has heard concerns from residents about rising rents.

“We need to be thoughtful in our planning so our Sandy Springs families, including young families and seniors, will still be able to afford to live in our wonderful community,” Roberts said.

The North End is the approximately 4-square-mile area of Sandy Springs stretching from Dalrymple Road in the south to the Chattahoochee River in the north, and from the Dunwoody border on the east to the west side of Roswell Road.

Before serving on the North End task force, the Couchmans worked with the city for years behind the scenes for years on affordable housing policy, particularly in the North End.

In January, the couple launched Sandy Springs Together, an initiative out of their philanthropic Couchman-Noble Foundation, in opposition to the task force’s North End Revitalization Plan. They opposed the plan because they believe it would drive gentrification and displacement.

Melanie Couchman said Sandy Springs Together plans to hold another meeting in early 2020, but no agenda has been set.

In September, the council approved a $199,942 contract to Heath & Lineback Engineers to design a

plan for Chattahoochee river path and access. The city desires to make connections to the river and to construct trails that run parallel to the river and that would connect to the regional project underway, dubbed the Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study.

This story has been updated with comments from Josh McLaurin and Shea Roberts.

Hannah Greco

Hannah Greco is writer and media communications specialist based in Atlanta.