For Dan Immergluck, writing Red Hot City, a book about urban inequality and racial division, was “cathartic.”
A professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, Immergluck has spent nearly two decades researching housing justice, housing policy, and segregation in Atlanta—which is to say he’s been “continually frustrated.” Immergluck moved to Atlanta in 2005, a serendipitous time for someone who studies development and gentrification: Three years later, the BeltLine would open its first section in Southwest Atlanta. Developers flocked to Atlanta’s new “beachfront property”; the BeltLine and high-dollar redevelopment projects like Ponce City Market, Immergluck writes, fueled a citywide real estate boom that would transform the character of Atlanta’s neighborhoods in a process he describes as “highly racialized gentrification.”
In his book, out this month, Immergluck details paths taken—and not taken—by policymakers that he says have resulted in a housing crisis that is forcing lower-income, and often Black, families further and further out from the transit, hospitals, and jobs in the city’s core.
“People ask me how long it took to write Red Hot City. Technically, less than a year. Realistically, it’s been in the making for about 15 years,” Immergluck says. “I’ve been keeping notes for a long time.”
How does the original vision for the BeltLine compare to what we have today?
The original vision—at least by the designers and community advocates, as opposed to developers, politicians, and speculators—was a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, retail, parks, and transit. The corridor was supposed to connect these diverse communities but not change them dramatically. It was supposed to allow people to travel from the southwest side to the northeast side through transit. Affordable housing was talked about, without enough specifics. Today, we have predominantly expensive and new market-rate housing; retail that followed that housing; restaurants, bars, and microbreweries—no transit, which may or may not come.
As early as 2013, developers started calling the BeltLine “beachfront property.” It became a strong center of gravity for high-end development and people who could pay full market-rate rents. That drove up the cost of land and housing. Old rental properties were purchased and redeveloped into high-end rental properties. There was an exclusion of who the new housing was for, and displacement due to increased property taxes. Apartment buildings pass on property taxes to renters. Even if they want to stay affordable, they wouldn’t be able to. The BeltLine became more of a development machine than a community project.
You write that this kind of exclusion is a result of repeated and intentional decisions made by policymakers. Can you talk about that?
Many operate from this inevitability framework: that the city is either going to decline or gentrify. It is as if those are the only two choices we have. But markets are socially and politically constructed to be what we choose them to be. In Atlanta, we choose to favor capital over people, especially working-class people and people of color. When we do public-private partnerships that seem to have only upsides for the private part and downsides for the public, that’s a political decision. Some of these decisions are made at the ballot box by who or what kind of referendum we vote for. But many of them are quiet and don’t get a lot of press, especially technical decisions about a tax allocation district or a bond referendum that people don’t understand. It’s not inevitable. It’s not either the city gentrifies and grows or doesn’t and declines.
Do you think policymakers consciously choose to exclude nonwhite people and lower-income people?
Yes. In the case of the BeltLine, there was no doubt there was potential to remake the city in a fundamental way. Did they know the degree to which it would happen? No, but they knew it would result in exclusion. There were community advocates who tried to push back, but I think they were overwhelmed by the development community, city leadership, and city council leadership saying we want to remake the city for a more affluent population. There was little consideration given to the effects the BeltLine would have on lower-income residents. I think that was deliberate. I don’t equate that with being malicious. I think they thought, this was the way to save the tax base. If the cost of doing that is to exclude, the cost of doing that is to exclude. They were working on behalf of forces of capital rather than in the interest of residents. That’s not new, not thinking about what’s going to happen to poor folks. They weren’t thinking about that in the 1990s as the Olympics were being planned; that lack of consideration just continued. I think it’s racist and intentional. Whether they justified it in their own minds by saying, This is the way to save the city, I don’t know. But they didn’t think, Who am I saving it for?
We often talk about gentrification in terms of displacement. Why is it important to consider prospective low-income residents, too?
People say gentrification is bad because it displaces low-income existing residents. I certainly think that’s a bad thing. But say we don’t have any forced displacement by a project. All that changes is who moves into the neighborhood when people leave, but people leave at the regular rate that they were leaving all the time. Even if there’s no displacement of existing residents, what will happen is, because people are price sensitive when they choose where to live, no new low-income people will choose to live there. They’re going to try to find a cheaper place as housing prices go up. You’re still going to see a neighborhood become entirely affluent. You’ve just created economic segregation. You’re going to push all those people who might have lived there into communities far from mass transit, public hospitals, and job centers. We should have the opportunity for low-income residents to be part of the community near where they work. We have to think about welcoming [people] by race, ethnicity, and class. What kind of city do we want to have? That question is not just about what happens to existing residents.
In majority-white suburbs, increasing diversity has been met with attempts to exclude lower-income and nonwhite families. How can people recognize and prevent this?
You have to get interested in the future of your place at the neighborhood, city, and state level. Pay attention to planning activities and zoning proposals. Work to resist NIMBY [“not in my backyard”] rhetoric. I don’t know how many times, in my own neighborhood, I’ve seen people write emails that start out, “I’m in favor of affordable housing, but . . . I’m worried about the schools, about infrastructure being able to handle more housing or apartment buildings, about traffic and parking.” Do not accept exclusionary acts that cover racism or classism. Even if that’s a sincere concern, it is an exclusionary act. Some people do think it’s going to ruin their schools or parking, but push back on that. Will it really? How much exactly, and what is the evidence for such claims?
The foreclosure crisis was a missed opportunity for Atlanta to hit a reset button on its development trajectory. How can it reset today?
Every time you miss a reset button, the next one is harder. We had a chance, when values were low, about 2009 to 2013, to buy single-family houses along the BeltLine for $15,000 in some neighborhoods and create affordable housing. Now, those houses are $300,000 or more. Now, creating the same amount of affordable housing is going to cost much more. The only way to come up with enough money to make a dent in our affordable-housing need is to fix property tax dysfunction in the city and county. One way to do that is tax commercial property at a fair rate.
What is an example of that?
Ponce City Market pays a quarter-million dollars in property taxes when it should be paying close to $20 million. It’s paying, like, 1/100th of what it should pay. Many properties pay half of what they should pay. But if you fixed that problem across the board, the city could have $100 million in new revenue annually. Then, if you devoted 40 percent of that to affordable housing, that’s $40 million a year. That’s how much the city needs to spend on affordable housing. Twenty years ago, $5 million would have been a lot. Now, they need eight times that.
How does Atlanta’s housing crisis compare to other cities’?
[Atlanta is] one of the fastest-gentrifying cities. It’s also the leading metro for large real estate investors and Wall Street–backed investors buying single-family homes.
This [investor trend] has been concentrated in Atlanta, Phoenix, Jacksonville, and other Sunbelt metros, and there are three factors in that: One is the presence of foreclosures after the 2007 crisis. These cities had lots of houses available for cheap. A second factor is job growth coming out of the recession. Jobs bring people into the metro; some of those people need to rent. The third factor is these investors like metros that have few protections for tenants. One example is just-cause eviction, where it’s hard to not renew somebody’s lease. In several other cities, if you’re a good tenant, landlords have to renew your lease. Another example is that, in the majority of states, before you file an eviction, you have to give the tenant a week to get their rent paid up. In Georgia, you can be evicted the next day. We have one of the highest eviction filing rates in the U.S. Eviction filings become public information. Companies buy, digitize, and sell them to landlords. If you have a filing on your record, it can be harder to get someone to rent to you. You’re exploited because bad landlords know other people won’t rent to you. Now, they’re charging a “risk premium,” an extra fee, for people who have eviction filing records, because you’re “riskier.”
Large real estate investors want to be able to do those kinds of things. They don’t want to mess with rent control—[we’re missing] any kind of rent control—or just-cause eviction. You don’t see them active in states like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, or other states that have stronger tenant protections.
You’ve said that you want this book to serve as a warning to other cities and a plea for making different choices before it’s too late. Will it ever be too late?
I don’t know if it’s fair to say it’s ever too late because that implies it’s time to give up and go home. But the longer poor decisions are made, the more frequently they’re made, the more costly it is to reverse or slow exclusion. By costly, I don’t mean just in terms of dollars; politically, it’s going to be harder to fix things.
If we don’t fix the tax problems in the city and get a lot more money for affordable housing and deal with our zoning issues and tenant protections, it’s going to be really hard to do it 10 years from now. It gets harder all the time.
This article appears in our October 2022 issue.