11 Questions for Atlanta’s Mayoral Candidates

Ceasar Mitchell

Ceasar Mitchell

Photograph courtesy of Ceasar Mitchell 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?
The issue of affordable housing disproportionately affects our seniors and working families. As a real estate attorney, I will bring my knowledge of this sector to the office and implement actionable ideas that help real people. In fact it was one the top issues during my time as Atlanta City Council president. As mayor it will remain a priority. Specifically I will:

  • Launch my “Blight to Light” initiative, which will transform more than 5,000 of the city’s most dilapidated, vacant, and abandoned homes into affordable housing options for low to middle-income families, educators, recent college graduates, and first responders.
  • Establish affordable housing requirements citywide. Specifically my administration will revise the city’s affordable housing policy to require residential developers to set aside 20 percent of their units as affordable instead of the current threshold of 10 percent.
  • Create a housing trust fund that can be used to provide down payments assistance to low-income individuals and working families
  • Ensure Invest Atlanta funds senior home repairs program with Office of Housing. I believe homeowners should be educated on how to appropriately address housing issues, so the initiative will also offer distressed-homeowner workshops to assist owners and arm them with helpful information.

2. Atlanta is dotted with memorials to the Confederacy, ranging from street names to statues. Should they be kept, removed, or modified?
The Confederacy lost. And we’re better for it. The symbolism of these memorials carries with it a reminder of a dark time in our history. I believe it’s time for us to move forward as a city and heal from that bitter past.

The Confederate Streets and Monuments Advisory Committee just convened its first meeting to determine recommendations for proper use of Confederate memorials. I am eager to review their recommendations and find a way to transition in a manner that works well for businesses and property owners in areas and streets that are impacted.

As mayor I will be committed to doing the right thing, not the easy thing. This is about showing the world that we as a city are able to acknowledge, understand, and reconcile making straight what was once crooked.

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?
The issue of homelessness has been a thorn in Atlanta’s side for far too long, which means we must do things differently if we want to affect change. I think we can find a more effective way to reduce homelessness rather than building smaller homeless facilities in residential areas or near schools. I believe shelters should be near social services and transit so that an integrated and holistic approach can be implemented.

My wife is an Atlanta Public Schools teacher and has opened my eyes to the reality of homelessness among our children. As mayor I will place an emphasis on our children first by turning to best-practices that have yielded results in cities with a homelessness challenge similar to Atlanta’s. My plan to reduce homelessness includes the following.

  • Implement Housing First Program: a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness first. Once housing is secure, it serves as a platform for which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. For children this translates into improved performance at school.
  • Build strong partnerships with organizations like CHRIS180 and Lost-N-Found to execute a comprehensive plan. The city cannot address the issue alone, so we should also tap the expertise and assistance of groups such as the Hollywood Youth Partnership to service our homeless youth. This would include providing necessary wrap-around services such as mental health counseling, skills training, and providing safe housing. This is a key priority for reducing homelessness among LGBTQ youth, who suffer disproportionately from having no place to go.

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?
As council president I continue to work closely with the Atlanta Regional Commission to help develop alternative transit options and have been front and center on exploring solutions to Atlanta’s growing traffic concerns. In short, the money should be spent the way the taxpayers want! The list of transit projects has been approved by voters and as mayor, I will certainly honor their wishes. I believe projects that offer true connectivity will have the most impact, and I’m excited to address the woes of traffic and congestion by improving mobility. It can have a profound effect on quality of life.

Transit plans include the extension of MARTA Blue Line over light rail to Emory and the completion of the Atlanta BeltLine, which I am proud to have sponsored legislation for back in the day.

Finally instituting a parking tax can create an ongoing revenue source to maintain projects in the future. It can be also used to maintain roads, bridges, and sidewalks. I do not believe the burden of maintaining neighborhood sidewalks should fall upon property owners. It’s a small, yet impactful way the city can offer value and improve safety in every neighborhood.

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?
As mayor I would champion the installation of security surveillance cameras for commercial properties that tie into the city’s Video Integration Center. Just as I’ve done as council president, I would also continue to address public safety issues thoughtfully through the zoning process.

As part of the rewrite, this includes installing smart bike infrastructure (parking and repair stands) in commercial and mixed-use projects. We should also allow permit expediting as an incentive for installing infrastructure, particularly in communities with the greatest need.

I think it would also be feasible to eliminate the requirement for some variances, such as height restrictions for accessory structures (air conditioners) and certain setback issues. Requiring minimum 10-foot sidewalks on arterial and collector streets would also be considered.

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?
I certainly hope that a recession does not occur during my term, but should we be faced with the challenge, I would set the administration’s priorities to align with the people’s needs. First this includes ensuring residents receive critical services. As mayor my administration would also review current operations to streamline service delivery. If its fiscally prudent, a last resort would be leveraging the City’s reserves.

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?
As the husband and son of APS school teachers, the issue closest to my heart is ensuring our children receive a world-class education. For the past 10 years as council president, I have partnered with APS to help advance the educational opportunities for our young people through my College Prep Series—a college admissions exam preparation program. More than 7,000 middle and high school students and their parents have participated. I believe we can improve education outcomes for Atlanta’s children in a number of ways. As mayor, I will:

  • Launch “Opportunity Village”—Work with APS to create an initiative called 7th Period, which bridges the concepts and principles students learn during the school day with 21st century skills such as coding and STEM, to ensure that our students are successful in tomorrow’s economy
  • Enhance the City of Atlanta/Atlanta Public Schools Joint Commission created by councilmember Andre Dickens. As an extension of the efforts by this team, we can lead efforts to ensure the Department of Parks and Recreation’s programming collaborates more with APS on programming
  • Partner with education and business stakeholders and philanthropic community to invest in early start and preschool initiatives to ensure that every child receives the same strong start
  • Create mentorship programs to keep youth off the streets and encourage our public safety officers to be coaches and mentors
  • Commit to coordinating more closely with schools on infrastructure projects such as the installation of sidewalks and bikeways to create safer, pedestrian-friendly 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?
I mentioned previously that my mom is a retired APS educator. She taught art, so I grew up with an appreciation for art in all its forms.

I believe the city should maintain its low sales tax rate to foster a business-friendly environment. However, as mayor, I would take a different approach than the current administration by utilizing the one and one-half percent required to be set aside in all capital bond projects, by city code, for creating and maintaining public works of art.  This has not been done in the past for other capital bond projects. We’re going to work not only just as a city, but we’re going to work regionally, because the Atlanta Regional Commission has been very committed to the arts.

In concert with securing new funding, I believe we can ensure dollars go further if we identify a governance structure. We have to bring all of our existing councils together (city, council, and state) and allow them, as experts, to determine how those funds are deployed. Finally we’ve got to be an incubator and make sure that we are creating and nurturing a new generation of artists. This can be accomplished through partnerships with APS and our arts ecosystem of nonprofits, universities, museums, actors, musicians, and performing arts organizations.

Our arts, entertainment, and culture scene provides a rich and diverse anchor. I believe we must support its growth and the livelihood of the creative class for the long-term benefit the city.

9. Simple question: How many police officers does Atlanta have, how many does it need, and how will you pay for them?
While the exact number of Atlanta Police Officers has been difficult to verify, Atlanta currently has less than 2,000 police officers according to IBPO and the Department of Human Resources. In order to effectively meet the needs of our citizens, we need at least 2,000 officers on the force. To meet payroll needs, I would lobby the state to use enhanced 911 services on phone bills (commonly called an E911 fee) to assist with funding public safety personnel like police and fire.

Inspired by my father’s legacy as one of the first African Americans on the Atlanta police force, I have been active in leading legislation to ensure our officers are equipped, trained, motivated, and compensated for their service. In fact, during my term as an at-large councilmember, I authored legislation that requires new recruits to serve by walking a foot beat rather than patrolling from inside their vehicles. Inspired by my father’s record of community policing and the stories I’ve heard about his days walking through the old Perry Homes community, I believe this approach can have an exponential impact on reducing crimes and building real relationships between officers and citizens, especially our youth.

As mayor, I want to create the most well-trained, well-compensated, and well-equipped police force in city history. This means not only hiring more officers, but also investing in the latest equipment and technology such as first-in-class simulation training, a state-of-the-art training facility, bulletproof vests, body cameras, an interactive data and records system, and high-tech fire uniforms to ensure that our law enforcement have all of the resources necessary to protect and serve the community.

Finally, I must also stress the importance of strengthening APD’s Community Policing Program by providing more opportunities for law enforcement to engage in meaningful interactions with the community—outside of the criminal justice system. Relationships matter. I will set the tone from the top and promote building genuine trust between the police and the community.

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.]
The council has adopted legislation making possession of marijuana a civil penalty. I supported the measure and would work with other jurisdictions in city with police powers (Georgia State Patrol, Capitol police, college and university police) to educate the public that marijuana has not been decriminalized throughout the state. We must ensure citizens are fully educated on this issue.

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’s growth and transformation has been swift and unprecedented. As a result, many black neighborhoods have been affected by gentrification. I am practicing real estate and finance attorney, and I understand the value of Tax Allocation Districts (TADs) and the economic support they provide to our communities all across Atlanta.  In fact, as a member of city council I created four of the city’s ten TADs to spur revitalization in underdeveloped communities, specifically the Campbelton Road corridor and the Eastside TAD. I also renegotiated the Philips Arena deal to get a $5 million dollar community benefits package for residents in the Summerhill, Mechanicsville, and predominately black areas affected by the departure of Turner Field.

To curb displacement, as mayor I will champion policies that can offer immediate relief to Atlantans such as:

  • Offering longtime homeowner occupancy credits for residents who have lived in their homes for 10 years or longer
  • Creating displacement-free zones to place annual property tax caps in underserved communities that are susceptible to gentrification to prevent residents and small businesses from being priced out as their neighborhoods become more attractive to developers and investors.
  • Placing 5 percent caps on the amounts tax assessments can increase from year-to-year by created inclusionary zonings