11 Questions for Atlanta’s Mayoral Candidates

Cathy Woolard

Cathy Woolard
Cathy Woolard

Photograph courtesy of Cathy Woolard Campaign

1. According to Invest Atlanta’s housing strategy, tens of thousands of Atlantans, particularly those living on low incomes, spend more than one-third of their income on housing. How will you use the powers of your office to help people stay in their homes and people living on lower incomes afford to live in the city?
Atlanta can’t survive if we only provide housing for the very rich. Housing must be affordable for our current and future workforce, as well as for people who are retired, disabled, homeless, or just hanging on. Housing and transportation are top priorities for me as the next mayor of Atlanta, and the two are intimately linked.

We must stop talking about the problem and act. We must take control over our city’s future while new growth and development is happening all around us. To ensure this is a priority, I will create a cabinet-level department director to work with the planning director and the new transportation director I will appoint to develop and implement a comprehensive city-wide housing action plan. We will track progress against the plan’s stated goals in a regular and transparent manner.

Our most urgent priority is to secure long-term housing access and affordability for those at the lowest levels of income—people who are homeless, at 50 percent area median income or lower, and homeowners threatened with displacement due to rising property values.

Here are three solution-oriented strategies I can begin to implement quickly as mayor to help increase the number of units as well as reduce the cost of living for those struggling to stay here:

  • Innovative use of public assets: City-owned assets like the Civic Center site and property owned along the Atlanta BeltLine should be used to create new affordable housing options by providing land for the private sector to build what we need or building housing in partnership with nonprofit housing groups or our own Atlanta Housing Authority. We should also be securing land in areas of future need so that we can continue to guide Atlanta’s growth in a sustainable way.
  • Sustainable housing expansion policies: By using a combination of public policy to mandate inclusionary housing developments; appropriate and innovative land use and development regulations to incentivize it; and dedicated revenue streams and targeted financial incentives, we can work to ensure that affordable housing exists in fast-growing areas and offers access to jobs, quality education, community parks, and basic commercial services like grocery and drug stores.
  • Transit-inclusive development: Transportation costs—in terms of both money and time—impact low-income residents the most. By developing transit-oriented housing and expanding and improving our public transit and mobility infrastructure, we can help reduce the cost of living by eliminating the need for cars and give Atlantans more options to get where they need to go without using cars or enduring lengthy bus rides.

Together, these strategies can help us prevent the displacement of existing residents, promote equitable access to transit, and achieve affordability goals. If we fail to fulfill our responsibility to address the connected issues of housing and transportation, Atlanta will be haunted by these failures for generations to come.

2. Atlanta is dotted with memorials to the Confederacy, ranging from street names to statues. Should they be kept, removed, or modified?
Atlanta is the cradle of the civil rights movement, and it’s imperative the city uphold and honor that legacy, not the legacy of those who’ve opposed equality throughout this country’s history. As the city continues to grow and diversify, it’ll be the lessons we learned from our civil rights icons that keep us strong, not veneration of those who opposed equality.

I appreciate the task force convened by Mayor Reed to inventory and review all vestiges of the Confederacy and will take action when I am mayor. Streets named in honor of confederates should be renamed. I’ll work with city planners to make sure this is carried out in a way that doesn’t disrupt operations or increase costs for small businesses as we make the necessary changes.

3. Many mayors have struggled with reducing homelessness in the city. Mayor Kasim Reed called for the creation of smaller facilities with services to help this population. Will you continue such a plan or do you have an alternative?
When I say Atlanta should be affordable for everyone, that includes the city’s homeless. My vision for affordable housing includes a plan that will reduce the city’s homeless population by providing safe and stable long-term housing.

When I’m elected, I’ll appoint a Commissioner of Housing. Part of their mission will be to enact solutions that will alleviate homelessness, with priority going to families, young people, and veterans. I’ll collaborate with Fulton and DeKalb Counties to ensure that we are building wraparound services on site for those who need them, especially people with substance abuse and mental illness. And we’ll work to ensure that there is ready access to transit so that people struggling to survive have a way to get to a job, health care, and a home again.

4. Atlanta voters approved a sales tax that will raise approximately $2.5 billion for new transit in the city. How should that money be spent?
Atlanta is a city on the move. Projections have us tripling in size over the next 25 years. With our amazing airport, the Atlanta BeltLine, beautiful tree-lined neighborhoods, some of the world’s biggest companies, and more than seven great colleges and universities, Atlanta needs a transportation system that can keep up with the breathtaking pace of our growth. I say go big or go home.

I’ll start by building five new transit lines simultaneously so we can get serious about transit-oriented development and give people real options for mobility without cars. For the first time, we’ll be able to reduce expensive parking infrastructure and build a range of housing choices for people at all income levels, family sizes, ages, and abilities in every quadrant of the city. And more residents will be able to avoid the expense of owning cars for basic transportation needs.

Smart growth means smart planning. We can’t go it alone. MARTA will be our partner in the planning and development of the expanded system, and they’ll be the operator for what we build. I’ll work with government and business leaders around the region to secure state gas tax dollars for transit operations and federal money to match our local transportation investments.

And making the last mile work in this aggressive new infrastructure wouldn’t be complete without wide, accessible sidewalks and segregated bike lanes that will help us get to school, work, and home without jumping in a car or bus for shorter hauls.

High speed rail to Savannah, Athens, Macon, and Columbus will give people more options to develop business relationships across our state. And a multimodal station to make transfers from plane to train to bus to bike easy will bring it all together. This isn’t a long-term vision for Atlanta—getting you and me out of traffic now is my biggest priority.

5. The city’s zoning code hasn’t been updated in decades. City officials are planning a multi-year rewrite. What changes would you like to see in the city’s zoning and where?
The current zoning code is a vestige of the 1980s, and if we don’t overhaul it soon, Atlanta won’t be able to support the kind of growth projections show occurring over the next few decades. When I take office, I’ll confer with experts, officials, and community leaders across the city to execute a plan of action, just like I did when I worked on the BeltLine as city council president.

There are some easy fixes to the code, then there are those that will require a bit more patience and push. As more people turn to ride-sharing and other alternatives to driving themselves, we should adjust our approach to commercial parking so space is used efficiently. Currently, new homes must be built 35 feet back from their property line. We need to bring that closer to the 12-foot minimum that’s standard elsewhere in the country. We need to continue refining how we handle “accessory dwelling units” like garages, so residents can make the most of their space. We also need to make sure historic preservation is prioritized. Historic sites are the fabric of our community, and when they’re erased, the city’s soul dims.

Each step of the way, in keeping with my commitment to an Atlanta that supports everyone, I’ll balance the code so we can arrive at a relatively unified vision for growth in Atlanta.

6. Say a recession occurs during your term. What’s the first program you cut? Or do you raise revenues, and how? Or do you pull money from the city’s reserves to keep government operating at the same level?
It’s impossible to predict the future, but should there be an economic downturn, I’m confident the city can recover. I would work hard to avoid raising taxes. Residents are leveraged enough when it comes to taxes, and the last thing I want to do is increase strain on them. Instead I think we could work toward a solution within our budget and reserves.

First I’d look at making cuts to expenditures. I would place limitations on travel, additional hiring and nonessential programs and purchases. If the situation proves to be especially dire and those measures aren’t enough, I’d consider more drastic actions like postponing programs and furloughs, and other measures to ensure we balance the budget.

That said, I firmly believe our reserves are sufficient to help us weather even the most severe recession. The City of Atlanta is required to maintain reserves approximately 15 to 20 percent of its operating budget, and as it stands, we have at least $50 million dollars or more in surplus than our ordinance and good accounting practices require.

7. Candidates say they want to improve education in the city. But Atlanta Public Schools is a separate entity and the city has no direct control over school policy. So how do you improve public education in the city?
Healthy communities have healthy schools, and healthy schools beget healthy communities.

While it’s true I can’t direct education policy from City Hall, I do believe the mayor has a responsibility to do everything within her power to make sure our young people are getting the best possible education. I’m proud to have attended public schools, and every student in Atlanta should be able to say the same.

It’s about building healthy communities around schools that are failing by investing in infrastructure—housing, before and after school programming, grocery stores with fresh and healthy food, sidewalks, bikeways, and transportation. I would partner with the school superintendent for input on how to build those healthy communities, because we represent the same taxpayers, and we’re both invested in the outcome. I would work to avoid conflict and improve returning the deeds to APS so empty schools can be put to use and not be a blight in our neighborhoods.

8. Atlanta’s arts scene is growing, particularly the independent arts scene, but funding remains an issue. Mayor Kasim Reed during the 2017 legislative session proposed a fractional sales tax to raise cash for the arts but the effort failed. Would you lobby for a similar initiative?
The arts and our cultural heritage are an essential factor in our current success as a city, and we’ve not invested nearly proportionate to the tangible and intangible benefits we receive. I’ll advocate for a fractional sales tax as well as work regionally and at the state and national level, where possible, to increase investment. We can start in January when the General Assembly reconvenes to extend the film tax credit to the music industry and pass the fractional sales tax while we convene a broad group for input into a new arts and culture plan for Atlanta. I want to aim for the sky with our next plan so that we have the world-class arts our community deserves.

I’ll extend a city per-unit tax credit to multifamily property owners that offer at least a year of free rent for artists to have creativity residencies in apartments around the city. I’ll work to preserve existing artist studios at affordable rates and request that APS consider using vacant properties across town to increase studio space in neighborhoods that don’t have such facilities. I’d like to tap methane gas from our landfills to create glass, ceramic, and metal-working studios so artists and residents can benefit from those opportunities.

I’ll make sure that we increase our general fund investment in the arts by doubling that budget in the first year. It’s a pittance, but a good faith investment while we unite around a plan and legislative pushes. I’ll ensure that the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs facilitates festivals of existing arts organizations and leaves the production of the Atlanta Jazz Festival and other programs to our local arts groups. The city will work as a matchmaker so that we can help connect artists to businesses that want to contribute financially or by contracting with artists to bring art to their locations.

And I’ll work hard to increase the budget for access to the arts for children, families, and everyone who lives here so that they are able to experience our great cultural resources without charge as often as possible.

Arts are for everyone and as mayor, I’m fighting for ATL—affordability, transportation, and livability. Art makes a city livable, so it’s at the top of my list.

9. Simple question: How many police officers does Atlanta have, how many does it need, and how will your pay for them?

The Atlanta Police Department counts around 1,700 officers in its ranks, with the city budget providing for about 2,200 more. I would confer with my police chief to determine what gaps need to be filled, but right now I think we’d need at least 200 more officers to have an effective and safe force. Our current budget accommodates that increase. We’ll need to keep working to ensure competitive salaries, benefits, and equipment to make sure we keep those we invest in and hire. And we need a new APD training facility. Our facility is a disgrace and is not a competitive advantage to our recruitment efforts.

10. The city has discussed deprioritizing marijuana, making the penalty of possession similar to a traffic ticket. If the topic is still up for debate when you take office, what will you do? [Note: Atlanta City Council passed this legislation in October—after this survey was submitted to the candidates.]
Possession of small amounts of marijuana shouldn’t be a jailable offense. For too long, marijuana laws have been used to oppress communities of color, particularly in the black community, despite ample evidence white people use marijuana at the same rate. Vastly disproportionate incarceration numbers are evidence racism is at play. As mayor, I will support an ordinance that decriminalizes possession of personal amounts of marijuana.

11. Neighborhoods that have traditionally been home to black residents and black-owned businesses have watched property values and rents rise thanks to new public investments like the BeltLine and a renewed interest in city life. Displacement is a key concern. How can the mayor prevent not just people losing their homes, but people losing their communities?
Atlanta cannot continue to be a great city if only a sliver of our community can afford to live here. That’s why I will prioritize an “existing neighborhood resident” preference in all new housing developments and policies to ensure in-placement of our community members as opposed to displacement due to market pressure.

As Atlanta grows rapidly over the coming years, we’ll need to place urgent focus on this issue if we are to continue to thrive as a city. As mayor, I will work quickly to get all the key players on the same page to align resources and move quickly to address this issue head-on. That includes governmental entities (City of Atlanta, county officials, Atlanta Public Schools, MARTA, Invest Atlanta, and Atlanta Housing Authority), businesses that need employees to live close to work, the development community, issues experts, and nonprofits that are leading in this space.

I will work to increase housing density, aligned with transit lines. We can grow our city while maintaining the unique character of our neighborhoods and protecting long-term residents, along with our trees and greenspace, if we focus density along transit. I have proposed a strategic plan to complete 40-mile streetcar grid along already-approved routes to be built in eight years, to open up more corridors for residential growth and more areas where people can live within easy access of their jobs.

This will require a focus on creating a dedicated revenue stream for affordable housing, exploring all available funding mechanisms—from tax allocation districts to development impact fees to a parking tax—and create an affordable housing trust fund. In addition, I will propose a comprehensive public policy package of incentives and requirements for developers to ensure inclusionary housing development citywide.

I will also appoint a Commissioner of Housing and create and implement a strategic action plan to meet specific and measurable production targets for affordable housing at various income levels that can be tracked and adjusted as market dynamics change. I will ensure that publicly owned assets like the Civic Center site and property along the Atlanta BeltLine are used to create new affordable housing options, and I will secure publicly owned land in areas of future strategic need. Public ownership allows us to enforce long-term affordability.

To protect long-term residents from being priced out of their homes through rising property values, I will ensure that existing homestead exemptions are targeted and relevant, and that low-income and senior homeowners are given solid relief while protecting the Atlanta Public School system’s future budget. I also will evaluate the entire Atlanta tax digest to ensure that nonresident investment property owners pay a minimum property tax after adjustments for exemptions.

Finally, I will work to update legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January, in order to give Atlanta the authority necessary to take action on property tax and gentrification-related issues.