11 Questions for Atlanta’s Mayoral Candidates

Peter Aman

Peter Aman
Peter Aman

Photograph courtesy of Peter Aman 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?
One of Atlanta’s greatest challenges is the size of the gap between rich and poor, as well as the lack of opportunities for lower-income Atlantans. Providing more affordable housing is central to changing the status quo.

As mayor, I will prioritize solutions that allow either the city or the communities themselves to preserve some form of ownership. Community development corporations and land trusts are great examples. I started on this work as a private citizen and board member of the Westside Future Fund by making sure real estate speculators don’t profit at the community’s expense in the neighborhoods near the new [Mercedes-Benz] stadium.

As mayor, I will also call for housing for those making minimum wage and below. We should also look beyond income to the needs of specific groups. For instance, we should look into ways for our police officers to live in the community they police, for artists to live and work in a shared space, and for seniors to thrive in neighborhoods where they are safe and connected. In the latter case, I support various forms of homestead exemptions. Many seniors pay 50 percent of their income into their homes each month, which is unsustainable. They need some relief.

But these are all ideas that are and have been out there. What’s most important is that we move rhetoric to reality and build a grand coalition with clear deliverables and a concrete timetable. We need the Atlanta Housing Authority, the BeltLine, MARTA, and many others at the table. I am the only candidate with the unique qualifications to convene and lead a group this diverse. This is the way forward. This is the way past commissions and empty political rhetoric and towards real action.

2. Atlanta is dotted with memorials to the Confederacy, ranging from street names to statues. Should they be kept, removed, or modified?
I am the only candidate in this race who has never run for office before. It has been remarkable to watch my opponents equivocate on this question and hide behind the findings of a commission. Personally I don’t get it. That’s not leadership.

I am the only candidate who has held a press conference and clearly stated my position. The Civil War was fought over slavery. Yes, it was fought over state’s rights, but it was about a state’s right to own slaves. That’s a moral outrage. There’s no nuance here. Place the statues in a museum, such as the Atlanta History Center, where they can be viewed in historical context, and let’s change the street names.

Atlanta is an international, welcoming city. To continue this reverence for an ignoble cause is beneath us.

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?
In 2014, I helped found a nonprofit called Partners for H.O.M.E., which coordinates the city’s shelters and seeks federal grants. I’ve walked the walk on this issue. I’ve seen what works.

We need to continue opening lines of communication between providers to maximize resources. We need more supportive housing so that we can quickly stabilize the homeless population and then assess their needs—whether it be rehabilitation, job training, mental health programs, or whatever else it takes to help find the best possible outcome. This way, whether it’s overnight housing or longer-term housing, we can compassionately support those needing a helping hand.

It’s worth highlighting our LGBTQ population in particular. Seven percent of our youth identify as LGBTQ yet they make up 40 percent of the youth homeless population. There are numerous instances of transgender discrimination at shelters across the city. That has to stop. And we need to have a broader conversation to destigmatize issues around sexual orientation and gender identity. Too often kids come out to their parents only to be displaced and thrust into homelessness with little warning. We need to be proactive about fighting that.

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?
This is a “bet the farm” situation. We need more buses, bus routes, and bus rapid transit to improve ridership, as well as placing our traffic lights on a central grid. Both will reduce road congestion. Light rail and heavy rail are longer term projects. But if we get started now and work successfully with MARTA and private partners, they can be expedited and make a real impact, whether it’s linking the Beltline or neighborhoods in town that currently exist on islands. We also have to do the little things right. We must grow and better maintain our sidewalk infrastructure while providing more options for cyclists.

But the bigger question here is one of trust. This is a multi-billion-dollar investment. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity, the likes we haven’t seen since the formation of MARTA. We need someone who can work effectively with the state and private partners. We need someone who knows how to spend a sum of this size quickly and efficiently. I am the only candidate who has helped manage the city. I am the only candidate who has worked on projects of this scale. We cannot trust a job this big and this important to a legislator with zero experience shepherding projects of this magnitude.

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 rezoning gives us the chance to decide where and how we want to grow. We can incent a renaissance Downtown, relieve pressure from Buckhead and Midtown, and with community input and intention, grow our neighborhoods in a way that doesn’t displace anyone.

We must review the city’s tree ordinance or else we risk losing our claim to being the “City in a Forest.” We should bring developers and communities together for a renewed effort at a green building ordinance. I would also like to change the rules around parking. As mayor, I would like to negotiate down the number of parking spots required for a development in exchange for things like affordable housing units. In some parts of Downtown, we’ve built parking spaces that double actual demand, leaving valuable land underutilized and entire blocks underdeveloped. Clearly, the codes we have on the books are inefficient and in need of review.

The City Design Project should serve as Atlanta’s blueprint as we prepare for the expected doubling or tripling of the population in the coming decades. Now is the time to build the Atlanta of tomorrow.

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?
As a pro bono consultant to Mayor Franklin and the City’s Chief Operating Officer from 2010-11 under Mayor Reed, I know first-hand what it is like to make hard decisions in times of financial distress.

I’ll start with what I am against. I think it is irresponsible when candidates promise dedicated revenue streams for every interest group they talk to. It impedes the flexibility a mayor needs to navigate a downturn. I also oppose Council spending proposals with no financial offsets. This is why I opposed [city councilwoman] Mary Norwood’s recent efforts to give pay raises to safety officers by using the city’s “rainy day” fund. Through pension reform, I helped grow the reserves from near insolvency to the place we are now. We have seen our bond rating go up seven times since. I will not dip into that during the good times and leave us unprepared for the next recession.

That’s why I will take a proactive stance by finding ways to improve operations and diversify our revenue streams so we’ll be better prepared to weather the storms. We cover so many regional costs with a tax base that makes up eight percent of the metro population. That’s why we must be far more proactive about engaging the private and civic sectors. I’m confident given my experience that I can grow these outside sources of funding.

And, if cuts are necessary, I’ll start in my shop—the Mayor’s office—and work with employees to find more efficient ways to deliver services. We’ll also use the reserves—and as necessary—identify funding to continue to serve the public.

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?
It all starts with early childhood education. It’s morally unjust that your preparedness for Kindergarten is by-and-large influenced by your zip code. I think every child deserves a fair shot. It’s also an economic imperative. Studies show anywhere between a $2 to $9 return on each dollar invested in a young child. It’s the key to uprooting poverty. That’s why I am committed to providing quality-rated comprehensive education for children under the age of four who want and need it. It will be a big lift, with support needed from multiple sources. I know the investment in our children and our city’s future will be worth every penny.

While our public schools do facilitate some early childhood programs, it is not specifically in their charter. That gives the mayor prerogative to act. For K-12, I will be an active partner with the superintendent, making sacrifices to make things better for our children and their families through wrap-around services like mental health counseling, financial advisement, and other city resources. I would also look to be an honest broker between businesses and APS to foster an apprenticeship program that ties high school curriculum to real jobs upon graduation.

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?
Yes. I believe we must find a way to fund both the arts and parks and green space. These two areas are critical to the social well-being of our community, and we need to expand access to arts and culture along with access to parks. When times get hard, these are the two areas first up on the chopping block. That’s why we must ensure that they are protected financially in good times and bad as we foster a more livable, vibrant city for all.

9. Simple question: How many police officers does Atlanta have, how many does it need, and how will your pay for them?
Per the Atlanta Police Foundation, the City has about 1,700 police officers, which is roughly 600 short of where they believe it should be. As our population continues to increase, we need to revisit that number.I believe that as Atlanta continues to grow, so will its tax base, and with it, the ability to pay these officers. We will also realize significant gains if we cut the costs we are accruing training new officers that quickly leave the force. That means the money will be there.We are not going to fulfill our goals until we get retention rates up. It needs to be invested in a number of ways. We need pay raises that are benchmarked to make salaries comparable to nearby counties. It’s also important that we update vehicle and in-car equipment. We should also look into a take-home car program as well as housing options, which help officers afford the cost-of-living in the neighborhoods they police.As the person who guided a turnaround plan for the city and as the Chief Operating Officer in 2010 and 2011, I know where we can improve operations and reduce costs. That, coupled with the increase to the city’s general fund as a result of increased density, will allow us to have a dedicated, fully-staffed public safety department ready to serve the citizens of Atlanta.As mayor, I will always make sure we do what is right, not what is politically convenient.

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.]
I support the recently signed legislation deprioritizing marijuana. The moral implications are meaningful. There is not a significant difference between the number of white Atlantans and black Atlantans that smoke marijuana and yet the overwhelming majority of arrests apply to the latter, particularly young black males. That’s a terrible injustice, and I’m glad the city has taken a step toward righting a wrong.

My hope is that it is paired with an education campaign. We must ensure residents understand that until the state passes similar legislation, marijuana is not completely legal in Atlanta. We don’t want people going to jail for possession after making the mistaken assumption that something has been deprioritized when it has not.

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?
I have said throughout my campaign that we cannot allow the people who have built Atlanta to be forced out due to rising rents and taxes. It is essential that Atlanta balance its growth with greater inclusion. I have already worked on this critical issue as a private citizen, working with others to create the Westside Future Fund. Among other accomplishments, it recently launched the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund, which will cover property tax increases in designated neighborhoods such as English Avenue and Vine City.

I’ve talked a lot in this campaign and in this [questionnaire] about bringing people together. As mayor, I want to be Atlanta’s convener-in-chief. As the symbolic and geographic center of the region, the mayor of Atlanta has to lead on issues where it’s going to take a big tent coming together to tackle big challenges. When it comes to this broader conversation around displacement, we need government, nonprofits, businesses, and neighborhoods all at the table with a real—not just nominal—voice being heard. This includes the Atlanta Housing Authority, the BeltLine, Invest Atlanta, MARTA, and others coming together to break down the silos and come up with a citywide housing and community development plan that dovetails into the City Design Project and the Connect Atlanta plan, among others.

This election brings to us a tremendous, timely opportunity to truly get to the heart of what kind of city we want to be. Now is the time to advance Atlanta, but we must do it together.