Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Atlanta Beltline's affordable housing mission creep

The Beltline, a rails-to-trails network of bike paths that will eventually grow to encircle all of central Atlanta, is a glorious thing. The city of Atlanta is entirely devoid of physical geography--no ocean, no lakes, no mountains, no rivers--and as such is starved for natural car-free pedestrian corridors.

Its built environment was developed over decades to be car-centric and spread-out, and only recently has the broader national trend towards urban, walkable cities reached Atlanta and heightened the political urgency surrounding policy and infrastructure changes.

Part of the Beltline's success lies in its incrementalism: instead of trying to build the entire network as a finished project, it started in sections and with few bells and whistles. Over time, its wild success has provided essential feedback to developers and planners, and you now see tweaks to the original vision such as lighting, access points evolved from desire paths, and targeted business investment.

But the very fact that the Beltline continues to adapt and change means that its management is being constantly barraged with choices and demands from various stakeholders.

Recent controversy over affordable housing along the Beltline illustrates this dilemma well, and reveals a worrying trend towards an ever-expanding set of social considerations, which subtly undermines the core strength of the bike path itself.

Next City has a decent rundown of the situation, which seems to involve a healthy dose of office politics, but is fundamentally driven by the notion that The Beltline organization should play a large role in pushing affordable housing development in concert with construction of the sidewalk itself.

From a purely explanatory perspective, it makes total sense that some key founders' have personal commitments to affordable housing and other social justice causes, and see the Beltline as a clever way to further these goals. After all, nobody really expected the project to explode the way it did, and its success has certainly had a positive impact on many social justice measures.

But just because the Beltline has acquired a social justicey identity and brand doesn't mean it should adopt an explicit social justice mandate in its funding and management priorities. To mix metaphors horribly, Atlanta should be cautious when milking the goose that lays the golden egg.


This is considered revolutionary in Atlanta Source: www.wsj.com

Although home prices in the Atlanta metro region are lower than comparable cities around the country, its walkable urban core is rapidly becoming unaffordable. Like most cities in the US, densification and housing construction in desirable areas is constrained due to an overabundance of land-use regulations like zoning, parking minimums, setback requirements, and many others.

That said, Atlanta has added a decent amount of compact units in recent years, especially along the current and future Beltline route, where demand is booming. For a certain set of urbanists this building frenzy presages a classic gentrification dilemma, where poor people get displaced, retail shifts upscale, and the Beltline's amenity value flows primarily to a rich set of yuppies, locking out the original residents.

This scenario is certainly plausible. The question, however, is what to do about it.

Some urbanists see the Beltline boom and worry that its benefits won't accrue to poor people. Their solution is to push artificially cheap housing to ensure some minimally equitable distribution of access. Even if this results in a bit less overall housing supply--a deadweight loss--the social justice benefits and virtues of mixed-income neighborhoods make it an acceptable cost to bear. I draw a slightly different conclusion.

When I look at the Beltline and the rising house prices along it, I think to myself, "let's build more Beltline!"

Poor people in Atlanta are disproportionately harmed by the near complete lack of walkability and non-car transportation options, and the Beltline is a small step towards correcting this sorry state of affairs. Throwing a few affordable housing units up along the only car-free corridor in the city is wildly incommensurate with the scale of the problem, and by discouraging market-rate construction in literally the hottest neighborhoods it might even reduce elite political support for expanding Atlanta's network of bike paths.

Even if walkability isn't one's primary focus, affordable housing along the Beltline seems like an odd strategy. By maximizing market-rate construction along the Beltline, Atlanta would probably reduce price pressure in other, slightly-less-desirable neighborhoods that would otherwise be at risk of gentrification.

In addition, the abstract moral logic of affordable housing along the Beltline is somewhat weak. For most goods, we generally accept that markets are the best and most efficient way of allocating resources, provided the participants have a minimal amount of money and bargaining power. Decisions about price-quality tradeoffs are deeply personal and are usually best made with a reliance on local knowledge. Affordable housing, by regulating and/or subsidizing developers and construction institutions, throws this wisdom out the window.

Instead of heavily regulating and distorting the housing market in an attempt to give poor people what we think they might want, why not just give poor people money and let them decide where to live and what amenities they're willing to pay for? Maybe some would choose to live in expensive condos along the Beltline, but I sort of doubt it. What does that say about the real preferences of poor people?

The Beltline is literally the most awesome urban amenity in Atlanta, in part because of its absurd scarcity. Doesn't it seem totally correct that houses along it should be crazy expensive? Why in the world would you want to build affordable housing there, of all places? Considering the opportunity cost compared to market-rate housing, building along the Beltline is probably the least efficient, most costly place to put it. Amenities like the Beltline are great, and it's totally understandable that higher-class paternalists want poor people to live the dream. But you know what's also great, especially if you're poor? Money. Amenities like the Beltline can't lift someone out of poverty. You can't choose to save up the Beltline for a few years in order to pay for college, or a medical operation, or an upgrade to your small business facade. You can't skimp on the Beltline in order to splurge on a nice meal or a new computer. Forcing poor people to accept public assistance via the convoluted mechanism of housing regulation and subsidies fundamentally reduces their options and freedom to make hard choices.

Of course there is probably some intrinsic and instrumental value in having mixed-income neighborhoods. But forcing this outcome via government regulation is not a free lunch, and I'm thus far unconvinced that those benefits outweigh the overall costs. The Beltline organization should stick to its core mission and work tirelessly to expand non-car transportation options throughout the city. Affordable housing is a political, ethical, and policy minefield, and I fear that adding this constraint to its development ethos will undermine the Beltline's simplicity, incrementalism and consensus-oriented approach.

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