Luxury housing dominates in Atlanta, the most unequal US city

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Luxury housing dominates in Atlanta, the most unequal US city

Darin Givens

Jan 4, 2017

Luxury apartments in Midtown Atlanta. There has been very little apartment growth in the last few years in the city other than luxury units.

While Atlanta certainly isn’t alone among US cities that are undergoing a boom in the growth of expensive housing, it does rank at the top among cities that are developing almost no new affordable and low-income apartments. Luxury-priced apartments dominate the market.

It’s that dominance that matters. Nearly all of the new apartments built in the city in the last couple of years have been in luxury buildings.

This chart shows Atlanta ranking at the top among cities developing almost no new affordable and low-income apartments, with 96 percents of all new apartment units in 2015 being built in luxury buildings.

That means the share of overall housing that’s available for middle-to-low income people is shrinking. Georgia Tech professor Dan Immergluck was recently quoted by WABE as saying: “There’s essentially no new low-income housing development. There’s also very little for moderate income folks, and so there’s this mismatch.”

And it’s not just the new apartments. Renters are finding older units to be high priced as well, according to that WABE piece: “Low- and middle-income renters…say they feel increasingly squeezed by the [Atlanta] market, unable to afford the new luxury apartments and edged out by stiff competition and equally high prices for older units.”

The desire for homes in the city near transit and bike lanes and parks is not being met in a way that accommodates the full range of income groups. The new examples of good urbanism in Atlanta — homes in compact forms near MARTA stations and with decent pedestrian infrastructure — are largely exclusive to the wealthier residents.

The Atlanta BeltLine’s promise of affordability

New apartments alongside the Atlanta BeltLine, where affordabilty hasn’t lived up to promises.

One of the most concerning aspects of this mismatch: even the Atlanta BeltLine is failing to come through for the city. It was supposed to have provided its neighborhoods with “2,800 units affordable to those earning a teacher’s salary” by now according to a piece in Saporta Report.

But it has only produced 570 units to date, and some of those have already risen in price since they hit the market. There’s even debate about how affordable some were to begin with.

Here’s how important the issue is: Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the creation of the BeltLine, was recently named a Streetsblog hero of 2016 after abruptly resigning from the board of the organization charged with raising money for the project: “Gravel said his resignation was necessary to highlight the rising rents resulting from the project and advocate for more robust solutions for people at risk of being displaced.” Nathaniel Smith, founder of the Partnership for Southern Equity, resigned from the board for the same reason.

Luxury homes for some, evictions for others: inequality is high

What makes this dominance of luxury and dearth of afforability so striking in Atlanta is that it is, according to multiple reports, one of the most “unequal” among large US cities when it comes to wealth gap. Atlanta is also segregated geographically along lines of wealth and class, and even health.

A study from 2013 found Atlanta to have the lowest level of income mobility in the US, giving children living in poverty the worst chance of rising out of it among any large city nationally. Because of the spatial nature of these gaps in wealth and opportunity, new luxury apartments are going up in geographic bubbles that serve to further exacerbate an already significant divide between classes.

Meanwhile, instead of getting new homes and new investment, the less privileged communities of Atlanta are currently experiencing a phenomenally high number of evictions, a crisis that’s hitting black neighborhoods the hardest. And the vacuum of high-quality affordable rentals is sustaining a market for the ones that slumlords provide.

Don’t dismiss this

I’ve noticed a tendency among some to treat the luxury housing boom in Atlanta as something that doesn’t deserve crisis-level priority — as though it’s simply an inevitable part of national trends.

But Atlanta has a particularly troubling set of problems related to inequality and housing, making this much more than a story about the local effects of national real estate trends. We shouldn’t dismiss this issue as such. Atlanta is arguably the US city (among large ones) that can least afford to be at the top of the list for dominance in luxury-housing growth.

Darin Givens is co-founder of ThreadATL, an urbanism advocacy group in Atlanta.

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