City Commission candidates call for tougher affordable housing measures in Decatur
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By Cathi Harris, contributor
The city of Decatur needs to be much more proactive in supporting development and preservation of affordable housing than it has been, candidates for school board and city commission said Wednesday night.
At an affordable housing forum on Oct. 16 hosted jointly by The Coalition for a Diverse Decatur and Diverse DeKalb and The Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, all candidates voiced some level of support for an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would require all new multifamily developments to reserve a percentage of units as affordable housing.
The city currently uses incentive zoning – offering density bonuses that allow developers to build more units on a given site that than they would normally quality for – in return for reserving 75 percent of the additional units as affordable to residents making 80 percent of the area median income (AMI). However, since the incentive program began, only one development, The Arlo, has used the incentive.
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“We have these tools, but they are not being utilized,” said Lesa Mayer, candidate for the City Commission, District 2, Post B seat. “We either need to offer an incentive that they really want to participate in, or a requirement that they have to participate in order to develop in our city.”
Christopher Gagnon, candidate for the at-large City Commission seat, said fears about harming the city’s development prospects are unfounded.
“Decatur is a hot market,” he said. “People want to build here and we don’t need to worry that creating additional barriers to them is going to chase them away. It is just a different column on the spreadsheet [for them]. This is a great place to develop, it is a great place to be in business. We need mandatory inclusionary zoning to protect our city and it will not chase away evolution or growth. What we need is managed growth, thoughtful growth, not untamed growth.”
In addition to mandatory inclusionary zoning, several candidates also wanted the city to be more proactive in preserving older, smaller-scale apartment buildings, duplexes and triplexes that provide some of the city’s naturally occurring affordable housing.
“We need to make sure we that we also focus on maintaining the affordable housing that we have now,” said Erin Braden, a candidate for City Commission, District 1, Post B. “We have those units around Decatur, smaller apartment buildings and smaller residences, that are currently affordable but they are being bought up by developers.”
Braden felt that tax incentives to encourage buyers of such properties to maintain them as affordable housing would be a place to start.
Rising property values is pushing even small condos and older townhouses towards being unaffordable for many of the people Decatur needs to attract, like public service workers and teachers, added George Dusenbery, Braden’s opponent in the District 1 race.
“Apartments become condos and rows of houses become townhouses,” he said. “There’s such a desire to live in Decatur that these are becoming unaffordable. On the west side of Atlanta, there are nonprofits that are buying these up and then managing them to keep the rents low or keep the housing costs low. I think that is something we could explore.”
Phillip Wiedower, a member of the Decatur Zoning Board of Appeals and a candidate for City Commission, District 2, Post B, said he also favored changing the city’s zoning code to allow more duplexes and triplexes to be woven into the fabric of the city’s neighborhoods.
“When I was a child, our family was able to take advantage of some low income housing that was available there, in Arizona, at the time,” Wiedower said. “Then, when we were able, we moved up to something larger. And, I would like to see that kind of progression available here in Decatur, where people are able to comfortably afford somewhere to live, and even save money to eventually move up to a larger apartment or even bungalow cottage. I echo the idea of something like a four-plex or triplex, but it isn’t something our zoning code currently allows [to be built].”
The city is beginning to take some of those steps with the newly formed Community Land Trust Board and the Cottage Court demonstration development, said Tony Powers, the incumbent At-large City Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem.
“That organization [the land trust] is in existence and has members and is beginning to acquire parcels,” said Powers, who joined the meeting via a Skype call from Germany where he is representing Decatur at the UNICEF Child Friendly Cities Summit. “As we go forward with the Cottage Court development, we know that [for those houses] the home value stays fixed so that as the home changes ownership, we don’t lose the affordability.”
With the Cottage Court project, the land trust retains ownership of the land, with homeowners acquiring a long-term lease on the land their homes are on. This allows deed covenants that will keep the homes in a designated affordable range as they change hands.
Affordability key to promoting diversity
Addressing the skyrocketing housing costs is essential to preserving the diversity of Decatur and its sustainability as a lifelong community, many candidates said. And, notably, all candidates said they wanted to keep the 2017 senior homestead exemption in place, despite its unexpectedly harsh impact on the finances of the school district.
“I would not support just completely sunsetting [the exemption],” said Tasha White, who represents District 2 on the City Schools of Decatur school board. White, who was first elected in 2016 is running for re-election. “I voted for it when I was first a citizen and I will be advocating for it as a school board member.”
White said the board was already in the process of discussing the recent report detailing the financial impact of the measure and what steps it would take.
“I think that people believe that it was something that is coming up right away but the truth is that we have another year and a half,” she said. “That was intentional because we did not want to look at the information and then have to scramble to figure out what to do.”
Jana Johnson-Davis, a former Renfroe Middle School teacher who is a candidate for the at-large school board seat, said she supports keeping the exemption to allow older residents on limited incomes to age in place and not be pressured to sell their homes.
“I am anxious to join the school board and begin to pick through the findings in the report, but it is really important to me to keep the seniors, like Mayor [Emeritus] Wilson, on whose shoulders I stand, because we still need their mentorship,” Johnson-Davis said.
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Mayer, a candidate for the District 2 City Commission seat, said that many older residents were being targeted in “an almost predatory manner” by developers seeking to buy their homes.
“I have watched the elders in my community, basically the people who made Decatur into the place that everyone wants to be, be forced out,” said Mayer. “That is a moral issue. We don’t want to turn into a community that says, ‘You don’t deserve to live here unless you are independently wealthy or live at the Housing Authority.’ While I understand that it has been a financial burden, I think sometimes we have to take actions that might be uncomfortable in the beginning to do the right thing and, in this case, I think maintaining [the exemption] is the right thing.”
While agreeing that the exemption is needed, Dusenbury — a District 1 candidate — said that he was in favor of looking at implementing an income cap when the exemption came up for renewal.
“I think that we need to look at it, because I definitely think we should have exemptions for those that need it,” Dusenbury said. “But there are people who don’t need it.”
In order to make up for the larger than expected shortfall, the school board last year had to increase its tax rate by 15.73 percent from the previous year, he said, an added expense which was borne by those under age 65 who were eligible for the exemption.
“By giving this tax break to all seniors, we are increasing everyone else’s tax rate by 15.73 percent, which means those [non-seniors] who are marginally able to stay in Decatur are not staying in Decatur because of the tax increase,” he said. “There are a lot of wealthy seniors who were paying the school taxes before 2017 and could be paying it after. So I think there is a balance there that will take really looking at the numbers.”
Affordability not sole answer for schools
In a discussion about the need to preserve diversity in the school system, school board candidate James Herndon said that while affordable housing was a key issue, it was not the only one.
Citing research that has shown disparities in treatment between black and white students in the city schools, Herndon said there is work to be done beyond economics.
“Yes, our schools are impressive, but good schools should be about more than test scores and graduation rates,” he said. “I think we are seeing less diversity in our classrooms and, to be honest, if I were the parent of a student of color and I read that they were more likely to be punished because of the color of their skin, that would scare me from wanting to live here.”
White, the incumbent Decatur School Board member running for reelection, added that it was important for people to know that the issue of affordability was not the only barrier that African Americans experienced in terms of access to quality education and livelihood in Decatur.
“We know we are losing African Americans in this community, not just because they can’t afford it, but also because they see the needs of their children not being addressed,” she said. “This is something that comes up [with the school board] almost every time I open my mouth because I want to make sure we are addressing why African American families are leaving and it isn’t always about money.”
As a former Decatur teacher, Johnson-Davis was instrumental in implementing a social justice curriculum in the schools and says she is encouraged that the district is at least taking steps to examine its failings and work to improve.
“But I think what would attract me is our implementation of restorative practices and the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports,” she added. “It would appeal to me as a mom of two black boys that they would be in a system that might not be so quick to put them out of school for minor infractions. I think we should promote [the work] that we have been doing and encourage our parents to be patient with this process.”
The Coalition for Diverse Decatur and Diverse DeKalb live-streamed the candidate forum on Facebook. To view the forum in its entirety, you can see an archive of the broadcast available on the coalition’s Facebook page.
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