How well we care for our people, particularly the least among us, reflects our city’s values. Atlanta’s reflection is ugly, revealing that we have been too busy with growing wealth for the few to care for our people. We now are at a point where regardless of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion, you too can ignore or even take advantage of the poor. We have to reject a system that works for the few and create an Atlanta that works for everyone.
We are #1 in business and #1 in income disparity. We lead the nation in minority millionaires and minority homelessness. I don’t mind if people are wealthy, but when we fail to provide even basic needs for our people, we fail to be decent humans. Atlanta prides itself on being “too busy to hate”© but does not care to provide affordable housing for most of its people. Over half of our people cannot afford rent or mortgage under 30% of their income. When we offer “affordable” housing, it is usually limited to 80% of the 83k Average Median Income of the Metropolitan Atlanta area. That’s roughly 66k a year, a number that is higher than the 60k median income of Atlantans. But even those numbers fail to tell the entire story. According to the latest American Community Survey, released by the Census, the median annual household income for Black households in Atlanta is $35,048. We do not care to provide affordable housing for most people and wonder why we have desperate people making desperate choices.
Atlanta must provide incentives and support to provide sufficient affordable housing. We can achieve this in two ways. First, we can allow for increased density to reduce the land acquisition cost and provide affordable housing. This change can help us provide housing in the 60 to 80% of AMI range based on current land and material costs. I like agree with locating this along mass transit routes, while preserving interiors of neighborhoods for single family residential with incentives to preserve the tree canopy. Simply allowing density will not provide the affordability on its own, we must mandate that affordable housing be built as part of the increased density. In order to provide housing for working-class and low-income families in the 30-50% of AMI range, we will need to provide tax breaks and subsidies. Our tax breaks should not rob the city coffers in order to line the pockets of developers. Rather we need to reserve the tax breaks and subsidies in order to make the numbers work so that developers can build affordable housing. It is within our capacity to do this, the city should mandate these changes in order to provide housing for all of our people.
When we look at homelessness, the situation is even more shameful. We are a city where we will always have a significant homeless population, as people can live rough most of the year here thanks to our climate. Too many Atlantans treat systems that care for the homeless as contributing to nuisance instead of caring for humans. We can do better if we make better choices and place value on human life. Homelessness is not a problem we can truly solve but a condition of humanity that we can manage if we care to do so.
When trying to deal with the issues of homelessness, we can roughly split the population into two groups. About 75% are temporarily homeless due to financial emergencies, domestic abuse, or other temporary causes. With proper support, groups like HOPE can rehouse these folks and get them back on their feet. Our city needs to provide more resources and support to these efforts. We have a lot of land and a lot of space that we are not using. We should convert some of this space to short-term housing to get people into a stable situation until we can find them better long-term solutions some of that property into long-term housing with wrap-around services. We should also seek to provide financial incentives to landlords who make space available where the city doesn’t own property but where there may be a large Workforce who need housing close to their job.
About 25% of our homeless population are individuals experiencing chronic homeless due to mental health instability. These individuals are often lumped in with drug addiction but a great deal of drug addiction ties back to mental illness. Unfortunately, most of our mental health care happens within the penal system via jail or prison in Atlanta and Georgia. Frankly, this is an expensive approach for a poor solution. If we invest in these kinds of resources, which I think we should, we should put them towards solutions that provide a better quality of life and quit treating mental illness as a crime. Rather than housing the homeless in our jails, we should provide wrap-around housing support that allows for a greater quality of life and respect for human rights.
Our relatively temperate climate allows people to live rough for most of the year. We need to acknowledge that fact and be prepared for having a large homeless population and seek federal support for this challenge. To those who ask how we will pay for it, we need to point out that we already pay in terms of jailing and imprisoning those with mental illness, and increased crime from the drug addiction tied to untreated mental illness. If opponents won’t meet us on the grounds of simply treating people as we want to be treated, we can win the argument based on economics. It is more cost-effective to provide wraparound services and reduce crime by treating mental illness and drug addiction than to take a strictly punitive approach as we’re doing now.
Homelessness and housing are not problems that are going to go away, but we can reduce homelessness, reduce crime, and care for the least among us if we care to create systems that work for all people. If we do so, we can move past being too busy to hate and answer the call to love each other as we would wish to be loved.