Reed: To make Atlanta great, we must focus on equity

The mayor doesn’t want working folks to be priced out of Atlanta, but how much can he really do?

If Kasim Reed began his mayorship as Atlanta’s money manager, then became the city’s de facto real-estate broker, today he offered insight on what role he might serve in his final two years in office: as an advocate for income equity in a city with one of the nation’s widest earnings gaps.

Delivered his annual speech to the Atlanta Press Club on the 49th floor of the 191 Peachtree Tower, Reed offered a brief summary of his accomplishments (six balanced budgets, no property tax hikes, higher real estate values, and rising employment) and touted a few projects in the works (Georgia State’s forthcoming development at Turner Field, the build-out of the Atlanta BeltLine, and a deal to keep Delta in Atlanta for another two decades) before turning his attention to his future goals of shaping housing and transit policy.

Unlike London, New York, and San Francisco, Atlanta still remains largely affordable for ordinary people, said Reed, adding that things can stay that way only if local officials take preemptive steps.

“It’s in our interest right now to turn to equity,” Reed said. “If we address this now, we’ll assure that we will become one of the leading cities in the world.”

Reed said he plans to enact Atlanta’s first-ever inclusionary zoning policy. The measure, which he’s worked on with Councilman Andre Dickens, would require developers to set aside 10 percent of units in new residential buildings at an “affordable” rental rate. In addition, he said, the city should use its major real estate assets—including land owned by the Atlanta Housing Authority, Invest Atlanta, and property at Fort McPherson—to further keep housing costs low.

“We’re going to do [inclusionary zoning] at Turner Field, we’re going to push for it at Underground, and I think we’ll have an environment for all of us,” he said.

Reed also voiced his full-fledged support for MARTA’s $8 billion transit expansion that, if passed, would create new rail lines headed north along Ga. 400, past Emory University, and east along I-20 to south DeKalb. Though MARTA’s expansion plans remain uncertain, Reed called on the press to paint transit in a positive light so that critics would stop “demonizing” the agency. After all, he noted, major corporations such as State Farm and Mercedes Benz have moved their headquarters to the Atlanta area because of MARTA.

“[Transit] is about equity,” he said. “It’s about a fair shot and a fair shake and people being about to use transit. But I’m here to make the argument that equity is profitable.”

No matter how much he speaks of its importance, Reed’s hands are tied in what he can actually do to promote equity. To pass an effective affordable housing policy, Reed would need the development authorities of both DeKalb and Fulton counties to pass similar requirements to force all builders follow the same rules. And of course, a MARTA expansion would require all Fulton mayors to break an impasse over a proposed transportation tax. State lawmakers would then need to allow a referendum that voters would have to approve in November. (Rewind to summer 2012 when voters rejected T-SPLOST for a reminder of how these efforts can go awry.)

Reed’s recent interest in income inequality is still noteworthy, especially considering the region’s massive gap between the rich and poor. Despite his calls to keep Atlanta affordable, however, the progress Reed seeks will probably end up being more of his successor’s responsibility. But at least it’s a start.