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George on Georgia – No Man’s Land

Annexation and new cities Editor's Pick George on Georgia Metro ATL Trending

George on Georgia – No Man’s Land

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

This story has been updated. 

I think I’m smart, which is usually a mistake.

We think political consultants and marketing executives – and pundits — are evil geniuses. But voters can be surprising. That’s why we have to actually do the voting instead of staring at spreadsheets simulating how we think people are going to vote. Voters get pissed off for good reason when politicians keep things from them, or assign power to unelected officials, or restrict voting. The “smart” people don’t know what we want. We will not be told what to want.

I note the many-times failed Gwinnett MARTA vote as evidence.

That might be why the creation of new cities in DeKalb is so alluring. People find comfort knowing that the politician – whose name they couldn’t remember with a gun to their head – lives down the street. When the momentary urge to burn their house down inevitably arrives, Atlanta traffic can make pitchforks and torches inconvenient, after all.

That said, the cityhood argument in DeKalb is inseparably bound with racial and class resentments. I find few people want to talk about that openly. We’re fraught with unspoken assumptions of underhanded motivations, presuming malice where none exists. That’s unfair.

So, let’s get at some of it.

DeKalb County, overall, is about 55 percent Black. Four of the seven DeKalb commissioners are Black. Both the DeKalb planning commission and the zoning board of appeals have Black majorities … not that this is intrinsically important: Black administrators are perfectly capable of screwing Black people. But one presumes that the county’s political structures will be sensitive to the economic interests of Black people, avoiding policies which have a disparately-negative impact on Black voters simply as a matter of political survival.

The proposed city of Vista Grove sits between I-85 and the perimeter. Vista Grove starts at Spaghetti Junction and runs south to Toco Hills shopping center, Clairmont and North Druid Hills Road – just about everything south of Chamblee and west of Tucker. And it has a white supermajority.

The easy read would be to assume that relatively affluent white people pressing for a city of their own no longer want their political fortunes tied to the interests of Black people who live 10 miles south. After looking at this a bit, I think reality is more complicated than that.

For one, I don’t think most people want neighborhood-level decisions made by a body representing 780,000 people. That’s true regardless of race. Surely, I said to myself in 2016, voters aren’t going to pass a referendum to form a city of Stonecrest in south DeKalb. The thing doesn’t make much sense and most of the professionals – the smart people – thought it was a bad idea ginned up by a bunch of self-serving political operators. It passed three to two.

Nor do I think the goal is to deprive county government of tax money. The tax hit to the county is minor. On a $1.4 billion budget, the county would be down about $15 million. I can’t get excited about that.

Folks tried to incorporate this part of DeKalb before: the Lavista Hills effort in 2015. It remains the only city incorporation effort around here ever brought to a vote that failed. The Lavista Hills effort rubbed me the wrong way, a bit. The initiative seemed almost calculated to screw with the incorporation of Tucker, and when the Lavista Hills vote failed by 139 votes out of 13,733 cast, some of its Republican backers made outrageous claims of election fraud. I’m still a little salty about it.

But as nearly as I can tell, none of the organizers of the new Vista Grove movement were part of that crew. Vista Grove’s leaders are, as nearly as I can tell, mostly Democrats of the north DeKalb variety, politically indistinguishable from Kathy Gannon, Elena Parent, Jason Carter, Mary Margaret Oliver, Scott Holcomb, Becky Evans and others. The precincts of Vista Grove voted more than two-to-one for Stacey Abrams and about three-to-one for Joe Biden. If this is a dastardly Republican plot to disempower Democrats, it is well disguised. (I leave to the imagination of the reader the possibility of a dastardly plot by amoral political consultants to line up work as city administrators and contractors.)

The Vista Grove footprint isn’t an island of affluence, with a household median under $60,000 a year. Some of it is very wealthy, of course – there are million-dollar houses in Sagamore Hills and the Briarcliff area. But the apartment complexes hugging I-85 and in Embry Hills balance some of that out. The poverty rates are more or less the same as the county at large. Mostly, Vista Grove reflects the staggering inequality of metro Atlanta today.

And that’s what I’m worried about.

It’s all fun and games, fists in the air and Black Lives Matter signs on the front lawn until someone wants to put an apartment building on your block. Suddenly, armies of red-shirted community activists show up to planning board meetings to discuss “the residential character of our neighborhood” and “school overcrowding” and “traffic bottlenecks” and “green space.”

Vista Grove’s organizers dropped immediate plans to create a municipal police force, but it intends to take over planning, zoning, permitting, licensing and code enforcement from the county. While DeKalb has a history of corruption in its planning department, these boards are where inequality is expressed as practical policy.

The average Black household has about $17,000 in net wealth, compared to $180,000 for white households, and it’s because Black people can’t get on the housing ladder. When they do, their houses don’t appreciate in value … because white people with spending power don’t want to live near Black neighbors.

Lakeside High School is in the heart of the proposed city of Vista Grove. When Lavista Hills and Tucker were at loggerheads, the comparisons between Tucker High School and Lakeside rolled around social media. About 11 percent of Tucker High School’s students are white, compared to about 40 percent of Lakeside. About 66 percent of Tucker’s student body is black, compared to about 33 percent of Lakeside. Some of that is because of idiosyncratic transfer policies, but still. The conversations were quiet and ugly about whether or when Lakeside would reach a tipping point, driving a new wave of white flight.

Yes, yes: cities have nothing to do with school attendance and race … right? Tell that to the zoning board. The formation of Dunwoody was pressed, in part, on lingering local resentment over the school system’s management of school transfers into Dunwoody High School.

The county’s massive sewer problems create a rationale to say no to the construction of affordable housing. An incorporated Vista Grove could use zoning policies make the creation of multifamily housing impossible almost immediately. Fighting discriminatory zoning requires a massive legal challenge, with challengers paying legal costs out of pocket while the city uses the challengers’ tax money for its defense. The structure is hard to repair, once created.

I want to give Vista Grove the benefit of the doubt. But I see where things are on housing and I can’t, and I don’t think anyone should. 

That starts with an inclusionary zoning ordinance written into the charter of the city that is ironclad. I would be convinced only if no variances could be granted and it could not be amended without a court order, a referendum or an act of the Georgia General Assembly.

Inclusionary zoning requires new construction of multifamily housing to create units that are affordable for people earning less than the area median income. Atlanta adopted a rule three years ago that requires new construction to set aside 15 percent of units for households at or below 80 percent of AMI, or 10 percent of units for households at or below 60 percent of AMI, or pay 15 percent of AMI per unit as a fee going into a trust fund used to develop future affordable units and preserve existing affordable units. The units have to remain affordable for at least 20 years to retain a certificate of occupancy.

(I think AMI sucks as a measuring tool when used to mitigate poverty as long as the middle class is being hollowed out. But that’s a different column.)

This is a start. It’s not actually enough. Municipalities impose minimum lot sizes that make it impossible to build affordable housing. They demand maximum density rules that are indefensible from a public planning perspective. I would want to see the construction of duplexes and quadplexes allowed by right in areas zoned for single family residential, to permit accessory dwelling units, and to have no laws about “unrelated occupants” of the sort that make it illegal to split a house or an apartment with friends.

Perhaps that’s a lot to ask. After all, Brookhaven emerged from some toxic politics and now has an inclusionary zoning ordinance without legislative handcuffs, and the ordinance appears to be working well.

But communities like this one also benefitted from generations of state-sanctioned discrimination which raised property values for white homeowners while locking out Black buyers. Many of DeKalb County’s subdivisions were built with racially-restrictive covenants that prohibited the sale of homes to Black people – rules that held the weight of state law behind them and weren’t formally outlawed until 1968. The Atlanta Journal won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 writing about bank redlining in Atlanta, denying home loans to Black buyers in white neighborhoods. I own a jacket older than that. Bill Dedman juxtaposed loans in Gresham Park against those in the McLendon neighborhood as an example.

If Vista Grove’s charter of incorporation carried an iron-clad mandate for inclusive zoning that required legislative action to remove, I would support its incorporation and encourage others to do so. But that’s what it will take.

Correction: An earlier version of this column mistated the number of Black commissioners and Black residents in DeKalb County. This story has been updated with the correct information. 

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