Why Housing Security Matters to Urbanists

Several weeks ago I attended the SURJ ATL Gentrification Teach-In. It was packed —  about 120 people filled the room. This is obviously something that’s stirring a lot of interest in Atlanta.

I basically wanted to find out how Atlantans talk about gentrification with each other, because the issue has come up  at every ThreadATL event and I’ve realized something: it’s not possible for urbanists to convince a wide range of Atlanta residents that new housing growth is good for the city without, in the same breath, addressing affordability. We have to talk about affordability of housing and confront this fear that growth will negatively affect it through gentrification.

Otherwise, our arguments for the many benefits of higher density and greater residential development will be filtered through negative perceptions (understandably), and we also lose out on the opportunity to emphasize that good urbanism is beneficial to everyone, across all lines of economic class and race and age and everything.

The SURJ ATL event did not disappoint. Speakers from the Housing Justice League and Turner Field Benefits Coalition sparked some good conversation that revealed strong opinions. For example: some of the people in the room were definitely of the mind that all new development anywhere in the city is harmful to low-income people unless it contains affordable housing. And some were equating the concept of gentrification with an intentional kind of racial displacement.

The HJL representatives who led group conversations eventually focused our discussions on what tools can be used by the city to mitigate the harmful effects of gentrification, such as spikes in housing costs and displacement of residents from communities, and also how we as residents can help Atlanta get to a place where those tools are prioritized.

From the discussion of those tools (Community Land Trusts, Community Benefits Agreements, more robust affordable-housing requirements along the Beltline, and more), it seemed to me like there’s a lot of interest in how to mitigate the harmful effects of gentrification across the city, but not necessarily a lot of direction from city leadership.

The divide of Atlanta: look at it, learn it, let it inform the conversation

A couple of questions I came away from the event with:

  • Can housing affordability be improved in a sustainable way without also addressing geographic divides that end up corralling wealth and value in exclusionary enclaves?
  • And can that enclave issue be addressed without doing the greatest harm that gentrification-based displacement can do?

By raising land values, urban improvements can often benefit the wealthy and hurt the the poor. Longtime residents — and renters are primarily vulnerable to this — can be priced out of neighborhoods that they’ve put time into upgrading, unable to enjoy the results. Which is an effect that does nothing to help the strong divide in poverty and home value in the city, as seen in the graphic below.

Atlanta home values
Image source: Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

There is a lot of data and research to support the obvious fact that Atlanta is heavily divided along lines of wealth and race, as I’ve explored in previous writings. This spatial division needs to inform every statement we make about housing affordability and displacement. And perhaps more importantly: the fact that this division has lingered for so many years should inform the way we talk about gentrification itself.

Let’s try replacing “gentrification” with “housing security”

We’ve been discussing and demonizing gentrification for a long time, with little result. Rather than focusing on what we don’t want, perhaps detailing and advocating for what we *do* want would be a more productive path. Promoting housing security may be the focus we need — it could allow the inevitable changes in Atlanta’s neighborhoods to co-exist with ideas for preventing things like displacement and housing unaffordability.

When you see the phrase “housing security,” you might initially think of it in terms of people being threatened with homelessness. But it extends beyond that.

From a 2016 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta:

“Housing instability or insecurity is different from the typical definition of homelessness. It describes the condition where a household or family has a residence, but because of personal and financial issues, has difficulty maintaining that residence”

There’s an area in between homelessness and housing stability that can be a struggle for many people. It’s a situation that causes significant psychological turmoil for families, particularly with the threat of eviction looming always.

In fact, a recent look at an eviction crisis in US cities found that ownership of properties by “Wall Street landlords” is contributing to housing instability in Atlanta. Here’s a quote from that piece that underscores how easy it can be to boot a family out of their home here:

Evictions are cheap in Atlanta: about $85 in court fees and another $20 to have the tenant ejected, report co-author Michael Lucas told Bloomberg, which added: “With few of the tenant protections of places like New York, a family can find itself homeless in less than a month.”

In an effort to take a look at the details of housing-security problems in Atlanta, we’ve got a guest post coming up this week from Michael Lucas (co-author of the report quoted above) who’s spent years working with the issue.