Equity, Affordability, and the Beltline

Ryan Gravel, creator of the Beltline, and Nathaniel Smith, Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, made headlines when they resigned from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership Board in October. On November 1, the Center for Civic Innovation hosted Ryan and Nate for a real talk conversation about their resignation, their concerns over the lack of affordable housing along the Beltline, and how Atlantans can demand greater equity going forward.

The Atlanta Beltline Partnership Board (ABPB), created in 2005, is a private, non-profit organization designed to engage the public in partnership around the development of the Beltline. It was founded, originally as “Friends of the Beltline”, so that communities could be involved in the development of this project. Subsequently, ABPB was able to raise big money from philanthropic and corporate partners for its efforts to bridge communities.

The Beltline’s goal is to erect 5,600 affordable housing units within 25 years; but to date, they have only helped fund far fewer than 1,000 units.

We asked Ryan and Nate what exactly the challenge is. If so many people say they want affordable housing around the Beltline, why aren’t we seeing more of it come to fruition? Nate Smith says boards aren’t diverse enough. In order for Atlanta to see real change, people have to prioritize diversity, affordability, and equity through their actions, not just their words. Some specific policy tools Nate thinks could move the needle include inclusionary zoning policies, a housing trust fund, living transit fund, or even an Atlanta community land trust. We won’t see the change we want to see through one silver bullet; it’ll take a toolbox of policies. Nate mentioned that some people have questioned if he and Ryan are cowards for leaving ABPB, but the ability to speak up is what really takes courage. We need more voices to speak out.

Ryan added that, at the end of the day, two people on a board that’s not listening can only do so much. But their departure from the ABPB doesn’t mean they’re disengaging. All Atlantans own the Beltline. And Ryan and Nate will continue pushing for change.

The same amount of people who show up for the Lantern Parade need to show up for conversations around affordability, equity, and the Beltline.
— Nate Smith, CEqO of the Partnership for Southern Equity

There are so many ways to “show up”, according to Nate Smith. Show up to discussion events like the one CCI hosted. Talk to your elected officials. Write to Paul Morris. Write to the ABPB.

Through an audience poll, we showed how many more people knew of and were contacted about the Lantern Parade versus the City Council Beltline affordable housing hearing the following day.

Nate Smith expounded on why the opportunity to be a leader in equity and affordable housing wasn’t seized upon. He said, especially in the early years of the Beltline, there wasn’t a broad civic ecosystem to hold Beltline and city officials accountable to their promises and to realizing more affordable housing. He says the Beltline is very good at developing plans and selling ideas, but that there isn’t a strong enough accountability mechanism.

Ryan noted that, particularly along the Eastside Trail, it may really be too late to preserve affordability. When you try to “improve communities” by putting in parks, trails, grocery stores, etc., you’ll nearly always be making the neighborhood more expensive.

Nate reminded the audience that Georgia voters have an incredible opportunity next week to vote yes on the MARTA and TSPLOST referenda. Poor communities in Atlanta have the strongest history of standing up for MARTA and advocating for public transit. Let’s support them and vote yes to MARTA expansion in next week’s election. If we don’t, we could really turn into San Francisco. 

Responding to an audience question, Nate clarified the role of Invest Atlanta in the Beltline. The responsibility of any development authority is to maintain and increase the tax base. Ideally, this should help lift up all types of communities and people, not just people who might one day move to a location. Nate is encouraged by the direction of Invest Atlanta and feels that they really care about affordability. The Atlanta Beltline, Inc. (distinct from, yet related to ABPB) is owned by Invest Atlanta.

Nate mentioned the Twin Cities and Denver as two cities that have done a good job with affordability and transit. They’ve set aside pots of money, private and public dollar, to prioritize this policy goal.

Southerners have a tendency to want to be polite. But now is the time to raise hell, Nate reminded the audience. Achieving true equity in our city is going to take a lot of advocacy. Don’t underestimate your ability to influence your elected officials. You put them in office; they work for you.

An audience member asked how we can get more people to show up and consistently show up to government meetings when they’re so much less exciting than the Lantern Parade, for example. Ryan agreed, but reminded the audience that these policy issues, especially of affordability, are in everyone’s self-interest to be engaged with. We’ve got to put policy implication in human terms, in terms that are easy for folks to understand.

Community conversations should start at house, Nate counseled. We’ve got to dream up what kind of city we want before we can put those plans into action. 

It’s not about north, south, east, west - it’s about Atlanta. We can’t dream individually. We need a constellation of dreamers. And it starts with relationships.
— Nate Smith, CEqO of Partnership for Southern Equity

Additional Resources: 

Contact your Atlanta City Council Member: Here’s a list with their contact information.

Contact the Atlanta Beltline: Here’s how to do so.