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Candidate Q&A – Liliana Bakhtiari, Atlanta City Council, District 5

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Candidate Q&A – Liliana Bakhtiari, Atlanta City Council, District 5

April 30, 2017. Atlanta, GA. Liliana Bakhtiari, candidate for Atlanta City Council District 5. Photo by Michael A. Schwarz

In an effort to help voters prepare for the Nov. 7 elections, Decaturish and Atlanta Loop sent questions to candidates running for Atlanta City Council, Atlanta Mayor and Atlanta School Board. Early voting begins Oct. 16. To see district maps, click here.

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April 30, 2017. Atlanta, GA. Liliana Bakhtiari, candidate for Atlanta City Council District 5. Photo by Michael A. Schwarz

1) Why are you running for office in the city of Atlanta? 

I felt like local government had become inaccessible, and I decided to run I am running for office in the City of Atlanta because I believe the hard working families and small business owners of Southeast Atlanta deserve a lot more than they are getting out of City Council.

2) What makes you a better candidate than your opponents? 

I am a hard worker and tireless advocate who has my finger on the pulse of the community. I have a history in planning, will always be proactive in servicing our district rather than waiting until there is a fire to put out. I will always show up for public comment, in addition to being readily available throughout the district, so that I will always know the concerns of my constituents. Furthermore, I would never vote to give myself a pay raise; I would never vote to raise taxes in Atlanta which has one of the highest tax rates in America; And I would never take money from any organization doing business with the city of Atlanta, or from developers who do not respect the wishes of my constituents.

I will prove that being progressive is more than just showing up as a passive vote, it is drafting and passing progressive legislation, being an outspoken advocate on Council on issues concerning affordable housing, transit, living wages, ethics, pay for play, and more.

I am proud to have the endorsement of The American Federation of State, Municipal, and City Employees – Local 3, The Atlanta Professional Association of City Employees, The International Association of Fire Fighters – Local 134, Victory Fund, Our Revolution Dekalb, and Run for Something. Earning the support of our public safety and city employee unions is vital to me, as I believe addressing our city’s public safety and city service issues, including living wages, is going to be a top priority if we are going to ensure that Atlanta maintains serves everyone equitably.

3) What do you think is Atlanta’s greatest strength? 

I believe our city’s greatest strength is its people and the diverse neighborhoods that give Atlanta it’s unique character. We are genuinely a melting pot.  There are over 100 different languages spoken within the city limits. That diversity is such a gift, and weaves an intricate fabric of cultures in each neighborhood. I am continually inspired by how people come together, across cultures and backgrounds, to advocate and fight for what they believe on the neighborhood level and beyond. Our city council need to represent this level of diversity, and I will be a councilmember who values every voice, and works to protect and uphold the many cultures that make Atlanta so vibrant.

4) What do you think is Atlanta’s biggest challenge? 

Atlanta’s biggest detriment is that we have lost 5% of our affordable housing every year since 2012. When we hear those numbers, it’s hard to place what that means for the people of our city. It means that our disabled and seniors on fixed incomes have been forced into assisted living or out of the city. It means that we have lost our artists, our service workers, our first responders, all because they cannot afford to stay in the city that they helped shape and keep running.

Our city government should have had safeguards in place for these groups, and a comprehensive plan for development via committees such as the Community Development and Human Services Committee, but it seems we have gatekeepers who have fallen asleep on the job.

5) How would you address what you feel is Atlanta’s biggest challenge?

Atlanta City Council desperately needs new leadership that is passionate about increasing the number of affordable housing units, developing and retaining our workforce, genuinely addressing the income inequality gap, which is arguably the largest in the country, expanding transit, and building a city that provides equal opportunity for everybody.

6) What are the top two or three things you plan to focus on during your term as an elected official? 

Growing Inclusively – As Atlanta continues to grow, we need to remain aware of creeping inequity, and provide options for seniors, disabled individuals, and working families to ensure that our city’s growth is healthy, and minimizes displacement. In my first term on Council, I will work with my colleagues to draft and implement new city zoning, serving as a guide for our city’s growth.  Furthermore, I will prioritize policies that increase the number of affordable housing units, and enforce CBA’s in order to protect the communities being developed. As we grow, we must also strive to address income and education inequality across our city, so that quality of life issues do not hinder any family or individual from thriving in Atlanta.

Re-focusing Public Safety – While statistics may show total crime is down citywide, many challenges remain.  APD is currently understaffed, currently down around 300 officers from its authorized force of 2000, due to low police pay and resulting attrition. Beyond just our officers, our City Employees in 911 response are also understaffed, and lack competitive pay. Furthermore, as District 5 is split between Dekalb and Fulton Counties, and borders on the City of Decatur, too often our systems are unable to find and accurately assign responders to 911 requests. As a result, I have personally fielded several complaints while canvassing District 5, of unacceptable response times and dangerous situations that could easily be avoided with proper response systems and enough responders. Every resident deserves to feel safe in their home. If something does happen, a victim should feel confident that police will be there within minutes.

I believe a more effective model for policing would be to implement a more community-oriented approach where police have smaller beats, can live in the neighborhoods they serve, and form meaningful relationships with their communities. Not only would this improve response times, but it would increase sensitivity to situation based crime, decrease discriminatory tendencies, and increase response times. Finally, I support further investment in the Pre-Arrest Diversion Program, in order to better serve juvenile, mentally ill, and impoverished individuals. I will work with APD and the city administration to make our police force a world-class police department and reduce crime in our city.

Building a More Transparent, More Ethical City Hall – The city is currently entrenched in a Federal investigation due to its lack of implementation for best practices regarding transparency in local government. Alongside my fellow councilmembers, I will work to improve our city’s transparency measures, rather than remove the ethics board as has been suggested by current council.

I would like to establish an easily accessible online database, where any individual can download all of the city’s financial and budget data, can view all legislation before it is voted upon, and review all city contracts, as well as details and costs of all subsidies awarded to corporations.

7) What is your opinion of the Atlanta Beltline? Is there anything about the project that you think should be handled differently? 

I believe the Atlanta Beltline was a fantastic concept that was fumbled on a local government level.  As currently implemented, the Beltline has actually worsened a lot of this issues it claimed to address. For example, the City and the BeltLine have grossly failed when it comes to implementation of affordable housing in the BeltLine Overlay District (BOD), and that is something that needs to be addressed immediately. One of the first steps should be implementing meaningful inclusionary zoning into the BOD that requires a certain percentage of units in new multifamily developments to meet affordable housing standards. In short, the City and the BeltLine must work together to ramp-up the number of affordable units in the BOD, through both inclusionary zoning and a larger, stronger commitment to the affordable housing trust fund. It is past time  for the Atlanta City Council Community Development Committee to flex any muscles, as it is meant to oversee and implement benefits for residents.

8) What is your opinion of the Atlanta Streetcar?  Is there anything about the project that you think should be handled differently? 

Similar to the Beltline, I think the Atlanta Streetcar was a good idea gone awry in the hands of long term incumbent politicians. Rather than treating the Streetcar as a much needed expansion of our transit system, and using it as a light rail alternative to move willing groups of people between housing and work, politicians turned it into a tourist attraction with very low ridership (due to its small and poorly targeted route) and is unable to financially support itself, creating a drain on the city’s budget. I am hopeful that some of these issues will be amended by turning the Atlanta Streetcar over to MARTA, which is better equipped to manage our city transit.

Before committing to any more streetcar lines, I think the City (or MARTA) should study where a streetcar expansion would be most successful. We should also look at where the money is coming from. One alternative is a Transit Development District (much like our TADs), supported by businesses along the streetcar line, and a special assessment. With this model, patrons ride for free, leading to drastic increase in ridership and a more stable revenue stream to support maintenance. Moving forward, I would like to see an expansion of the streetcar, after a sustainability study, and provided that it be managed by MARTA.

9) What should the city of Atlanta do to reduce traffic congestion in the city? 

Expanding mass transit including light rail, bus rapid transit, sidewalk, and bicycle networks is at the root of so many issues as our city and metro region continue to grow. The City of Atlanta should make it a priority to work with its metro and state partners to ensure needed expansions come to fruition. The state’s recent MARTA funding and the transit TSPLOST will be extremely useful to reaching that goal, but we must ensure that improvements are based on needs and facts, not politics. Furthermore, in order to receive full federal funding for our light rail, we need to nearly double our density per square mile along transit lines, making this an overall development issue, not just a transportation issue. We can do that by adjusting zoning to allow for new development near public transit hubs that to not require acres of parking lot, and incentivizing smart, mixed-use and mixed-income development along transit.

Our other outdated transportation infrastructure also must be addressed. A huge step would be to establish a long needed Atlanta Department of Transportation, placing more accountability, focus, and expertise on addressing our transportation issues in the city. For example, a more targeted DOT could better address “choke points” in our commutes, like old traffic signals that lack optimization, and busy intersections with no dedicated left and/or right turn lanes due to poor or outdated planning, and provide the tools and tactics to get traffic to flowing optimally through out city.

I will also be an advocate for expanding our sidewalk and bicycle networks. I would personally bike or walk more often if the streets had safe dedicated bike lanes, or proper pedestrian infrastructure such as crosswalks and smooth sidewalks along major byways, like Dekalb Avenue and Memorial Drive. I have friends who have become paralyzed due to unsafe shared bike lanes, and there are pedestrians who have died this year crossing some of the busiest roads in District 5. As we look to a comprehensive Transportation network, led by an Atlanta Department of Transportation, we must include bikers and pedestrians in the conversation.

10) What should the city do to increase affordable housing options for its residents? 

Something we can do right away is cap the AMI for affordable housing development at 30%, so that the housing we build is truly affordable for residents making less than $30,000 per year.

The second thing we can do is better enforce the agreements previously agreed to along the Beltline Overlay District, which have not had any teeth up to this point, and have gone unchallenged by the Council Committee that oversees its development.

Third, we need to have a City Council that is willing to demand more from developers. The City of Atlanta’s land is in high demand, and it would serve us well to leverage that demand, and require higher standards and more units of affordable housing from those developers.

And finally, we need a council that is willing to look for creative, progressive solutions like tiny housing for our unsheltered or transitioning families and individuals, as well as, reclaiming our vacant and blighted properties. The city’s current process allows for property to remain in the possession of the irresponsible absentee owner, continuing to be useless to the city and attract more code enforcement complaints. A better practice would be to transfer the property to a land bank (currently the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority), allowing the city to then transfer the land at little to no cost to developers, private citizens, or non-profits so affordable housing can be built.

I think this issue is going to require diversity of tactic. Other strategies I’ve looked into to improve our supply of affordable housing include inclusionary zoning (particularly along the Beltline Overlay District), housing bonds, landtrusts, and city-funded/incentivized workforce housing. I think we need to bring every model to the table in order to find the best combination of tactics as we move forward in building a more inclusive city.

11) If elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner?

Yes. Not only do I promise to conduct myself ethically and transparently, I would love to author and implement transparency legislation for City Hall to make the city’s most vulnerable departments, like Procurement, less susceptible to “pay-to-play.” I propose that all City Hall offices post not only their departmental budget, but also their department’s checkbook spending, all drafted legislation before it is taken to a vote, and all contracts by vendors currently up for consideration by the city.

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