This guest post was written by Chenee Joseph and Nikishka Iyengar.
Against the backdrop of an unrelenting pandemic, and in the midst of a national uprising sparked by the extrajudicial killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and far too many others, the fight for Black lives and Black communities continues here in Atlanta. From frontline protests to policy advocacy, the righteous anger in the face of systemic anti-Black racism is being channeled into clear demands from city governments across the country. Most notable are the calls to defund and divest from police and prisons, and invest in communities through affordable housing, healthcare, education, and livable wage jobs.
The City of Atlanta’s proposed FY 2021 budget, which includes raises for the Atlanta Police Department and cuts to community development financing tools, currently goes against the grain of heeding these urgent calls to action.
While COVID-19 has no doubt impacted municipal revenue, the proposed budget cuts – which includes redirecting $17 million from the Eastside Tax Allocation District (ETAD) – are inequitable and lack much-needed transparency. From the latest TAD financial reports, there appears to be cash available in eight of the city’s ten TADs, however, the Eastside TAD which largely serves historic Sweet Auburn – a district that is no stranger to repeated disinvestment from the city – is the only TAD being looked at as a potential solution to plug a city-wide budget hole.
The proposed redirection not only reduces funds available for development in Sweet Auburn currently, it also sets a dangerous precedent that could potentially jeopardize the existence of the Eastside TAD altogether should the other participating jurisdictions (Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton County) seek a similar action.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. In 2019, approximately $54 million was removed from the ETAD to satisfy Atlanta Public Schools’ request to recoup its contribution into all TADs. In exchange, APS would participate in the Gulch deal. And in 2016, funds from the RENEW Atlanta bonds were reallocated to other parts of the city despite the severe infrastructure needs outstanding that can still persist in the corridor today.
While the neighborhood’s historic churches, nonprofits, and other buildings make for compelling photo opportunities each year during Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday or Black History month, each time there is a gap in the city’s budget (or as different political agendas transpire), funding tools from Sweet Auburn appear to be the first to be reprioritized. The ‘tale of two Atlantas’ we all know is evident just in the stark disparity across Old Fourth Ward, with Sweet Auburn continuing to be disinvested from.
The City of Atlanta’s stated reasons for gutting only the Eastside TAD are disingenuous. Claims that the ETAD is the only TAD with substantial cash/investment balances leave out the fact that for nearly a decade, the dollars were inaccessible due to either terms of the bond agreement or due to the moratorium issued by the previous administration. Since the ETAD re-opened in 2019, there has been a significant push to get projects off the ground that were focused on making Auburn sweet again, by lifting up Black residents and entrepreneurs through affordable housing and commercial retail spaces.
There are currently over 400 affordable housing units in the pipeline spearheaded by mission-driven developers, churches and community development corporations (including HDDC) that are now at risk with these proposed cuts. This move to gut only the Eastside TAD that serves this corridor is a public policy failure on two levels – one, it prevents equitable development from occurring in our most historic neighborhood, very much in conflict with the lofty “One Atlanta” plan that was put forth after the mayor took office; and two, the repurposing of that $17 million from ETAD will actually result in a $36 million loss for the city (since it will have to return that amount to APS and Fulton County).
COVID-19 and our collective response to it threatens to widen structural inequities across the board, but some of that is entirely preventable. Why would a city that has had Black leadership for almost 50 years prohibit the growth of a neighborhood that holds such important cultural significance to African Americans – locally and nationally? The ‘Atlanta Way’ we all know that prioritizes stadiums over communities consistently harms our Black communities. Auburn Ave. is perhaps Atlanta’s most important street, for both its rich history and for its potential to return to its glory days, to become Sweet Auburn once again – but the latter may be impossible without support from tools like the Eastside TAD. In this defining moment in history, cities like L.A. are slashing as much as $150 million from police budgets and repurposing those dollars to serve communities of color. We need to follow suit by taking a hard look at what we truly value, and aligning our city dollars with those values.
Chenee Joseph is the Executive Director of HDDC, one of Atlanta’s oldest surviving community development corporations and the only non-profit organization specifically dedicated to preserving the availability of affordable housing in the Old Fourth Ward. HDDC’s new project named “The Front Porch on Auburn” will help sustain Sweet Auburn’s re-emergence as an exceptionally diverse residential neighborhood and vibrant commercial center that demonstrates economic prosperity for all, rooted in environmental sustainability, and built upon its unique African American heritage.
Nikishka Iyengar is the founder and CEO of The Guild, a community wealth building organization focused on closing the racial wealth gap in Atlanta through real estate, entrepreneurship programs, and access to capital. The Guild currently operates a co-living space for entrepreneurs and a retail store for emerging Black-owned brands on Auburn Ave.
The Guild and HDDC have been working collectively on ‘The Return to Sweet Auburn’ campaign.