Pearl River Atlanta bills itself as the Queen City of the South, an international hub with perhaps the world’s busiest airport, multiple corporate headquarters, and more depending on the day of the week, and where it can make a buck. Inarguably, it’s a great city that in recent years has grown like topsy. The eight-county metropolitan area has pulled the red rural counties towards blue nationally, although the state officers are Republican almost from top to bottom and blood red in the legislature. Of all of the things that Atlanta has been and is becoming, talking to Georgia State University urban studies professor, Dan Immergluck, on Wade’sWorld recently, it was clear that no matter how the city bills itself, it is no longer the mecca for minorities and low-and-moderate families when it comes to actions, not advertisements.
Immergluck assembled almost two decades of research he has done on the development patterns and policies of Atlanta between the covers of his new book, Red Hot City: Housing, Race, and Exclusion in Twenty-First Century Atlanta. He paints a clear picture of the history of Atlanta’s development and its current situation, but it’s not pretty. For decades the “Atlanta style” or “Atlanta way,” as the power structure defined itself, was an alliance of sorts between white business interests and the Black bourgeoisie. Undoubtedly, it worked well in their interests, and their interests were often driven, as is true in so many cities in the South, whether Little Rock, Dallas, or New Orleans, and many other nationally as well, by developers and real estate interests. Left out and increasingly pushed out of the city into the metropolitan suburbs are Black, brown, and lower-income families, who can no longer afford to rent or own homes there, even as the city’s job market continues to attract mobile young Black men and women more than any other American city.
Immergluck and I spent a lot of our time talking about opportunities that were lost to create and protect affordable housing, and how the city’s inaction enabled speculators from small timers to giant Wall Street private equity operators. The most recent example was the failure to act during the 2007-2008 Great Recession to stop foreclosures or acquire properties, which instead were seized by the big operators in huge tranches. Immergluck noted how some observers were missing the impact on local housing markets like Atlanta, Memphis, Phoenix and others of these acquisitions, when their apologists looked only at the fact that they control 3% of the national market.
The bigger failure was embedded in what many would see as one of Atlanta’s biggest successes, and that has been the development of the beltway, arguably one of the largest and most successful public-private partnerships anywhere, built on the rails-to-trails model, and winding many miles through scores of Atlanta neighborhoods. Rather than acting preemptively to protect those neighborhoods, many of which were minority and lower-income, from gentrification, the city’s inaction encouraged speculation and market-triggered displacement. I can remember door knocking in some of these neighborhoods as part of the ACORN Home Savers Campaign targeting various rent-to-own and contract-purchase schemes in the city. At one abandoned property I visited, I ran into the owner, who turned out to be a local Indian-American dentist who was interested in where I was door knocking to see if there might be other properties for him to acquire. At another door, a contract-buyer wanted me to read his agreement to see if he could sell easily, since his area was being gentrified by young Black professionals, and maybe he could cash out and move to the suburbs. The beltway became an amenity that magnetized gentrification.
Is it too late for Atlanta? We hope not, but what’s done can’t be undone. City policy has adapted somewhat, as Immergluck explained, but can’t do as much now that prices have skyrocketed. Where thousands of housing units might have been developed affordably, Atlanta will be lucky to see hundreds completed. For better or worse, Atlanta offers a case study in both what should and should not be done, if part of the mission is building and maintaining a diverse and equitable urban community.