May 5, 2023

Story originally published in Canopy Forum.

In January of 2022, Mayor Andre Dickens became Atlanta’s 61st Mayor, and with this inauguration came the renewed focus of city officials to create affordable housing citywide. As one of the co-authors of Atlanta’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance while serving on the Atlanta City Council, Mayor Dickens set a bold goal to preserve or produce 20,000 units of affordable housing during his tenure as mayor. In the weeks that followed his inauguration, the Mayor further crystallized his vision of turning Atlanta into the best place to raise a family by calling upon the faith community to tithe 10% of the 20,000 units by activating their land to create affordable housing. With the goal of 2000 units to be produced by Atlanta’s faith community, the City of Atlanta Faith-Based Development Initiative (FBDI) was launched in February 2022 in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners

Enterprise pioneered the engagement of faith-based organizations across the Southeast and Midwest. The model they deploy features dedicated technical assistance and support to houses of worship that enable their access to experts and capital, as necessary. After a year of engagement and training, houses of worship that participate in Enterprise’s cohort are able to make fully informed decisions about whether or not to pursue housing development. Drawing on this design, the Atlanta Faith-Based Development Initiative is designed to ensure expanded access to unlimited technical assistance and to support participants at every stage of the housing development process. 

As a Mayor that believes that moving Atlanta is a group project that all can contribute to, he instructed his staff to get community guidance, buy-in, and support for the initiative, and as a result, we convened a steering committee of local leaders to inform program design, planning and implementation. The steering committee was composed of leading organizations such as the Urban Land InstituteEnterprise Community PartnersInvest AtlantaAtlanta HousingCentral Atlanta ProgressAtlanta Land TrustMetro Atlanta Land Bank, the Atlanta First United Methodist Church, the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church, and the Grove Community Development Corporation. Facilitated by the Mayor’s Office, the principal mandate that resulted from the steering committee was to focus the initiative on the creation of educational and networking opportunities and rapid unit production. The educational mandate has resulted in more than 16 large-scale and hyper-local workshops, which have engaged more than 450 faith leaders and initiated discussions about historic preservation, affordable onsite medical care through Matter Health, fair housing practices, and other critical services. As our orientation has been to refine the initiative’s offerings in response to input from the steering committee and the public, we continue to adapt to emerging needs.

This direction engages diverse denominational and faith traditions, continuously improves city processes, and creates new programs to eliminate barriers. In alignment with this mandate from our Mayor, the City of Atlanta recently announced a first-of-its-kind $500,000 pre-development grant program to remove the financial barrier to access for organizations wishing to activate their land for the public good. Grants can be used to cover costs such as appraisals, initial renderings, environmental studies, and more. This ensures that institutions have all the necessary information as they enter negotiations with possible development partners and clarifies the true value of their land holding. 

This direction engages diverse denominational and faith traditions, continuously improves city processes, and creates new programs to eliminate barriers.

Additionally, the FBDI has focused on networking with faith-based and community-based organizations to spur strategic engagements around housing. One such partnership has been the Allen Temple AME Church and the Veterans Empowerment Organization, which has the potential to couple sustainable building practices with innovative design in order to better serve veterans in Atlanta. Networking with institutions in our program means engaging unlikely partners and ensuring that collaboration is maintained within the cohort. One such collaboration that we have featured is between the Atlanta Neighborhood Development PartnershipHabitat for Humanity Atlanta, and Cityscape Housing — which highlights the value of partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit partners to build communities that might not be salient when pursued alone. 

In keeping with the mandate to educate, network, and activate, the Atlanta FBDI encourages developers, real estate consultants, surveyors, architects, and other experts to opt in to support the FBDI. This voluntary process allows professionals to offer their services to organizations while empowering organizations to interrogate their potential service provider while knowing they are aligned in values from their first conversation. This practice has been immensely effective at engaging emergent woman-owned and minority-owned firms to leverage their expertise on projects that might have otherwise not reached them. Moreover, this practice has enabled the inclusion of partners like HomeAid AtlantaPartners for HomeProject Community ConnectionsHistoric District Development CorporationWheat Street Charitable Foundation and Mercy Housing Southeast to collaborate with new partners to innovate the way housing is delivered in service to Atlanta’s unhoused and housing burdened populations.

Continuing to draw on feedback from our participants, we have found that access to traditional sources of development financing are not always sufficient to ensure developments close and units become available. Consequently, we have engaged financial institutions such as Georgia’s Own Credit Union and U.S. Bank to offer down payment and lending assistance to current renters, as well as support to developers in Atlanta with gap financing. This is of particular importance because large banks can leverage a variety of funding mechanisms that are not available to the government, but which make all the difference in terms of facilitating important projects and, as a result, communities thrive. 

Continuing to draw on feedback from our participants, we have found that access to traditional sources of development financing are not always sufficient to ensure developments close and units become available.

As a senior policy analyst, my role is to investigate the extent to which public policy is aligned with the mayor’s vision and to make recommendations regarding how we might augment that policy to lead to better outcomes for our citizens. In this capacity, I have principally served as a technical advisor to the 40-plus organizations that are currently pursuing developments ranging in scope from single-family renovations to large-scale multifamily developments. 

The way our team functions within municipal government to address unique and emergency issues as part of the mayor’s policy office is a novel innovation. In this capacity, myself and a team of other senior analysts, directors, and senior advisors work to advance policies that produce lasting neighborhood economic development, house all residents, protect and educate children, and cultivate strategic partnerships and initiatives. While many other municipalities also have offices of policy, our office is uniquely situated outside of traditional structures to ensure that we can incubate solutions, test, refine, document, implement, and then ultimately pass off long-term ownership to the appropriate city unit to ensure their continued institutionalization within government.

The orientation of this municipality is that although unit creation may be incremental, it can still be immensely impactful — particularly as we activate public land in support of our affordable housing goals and create affordable housing across all income levels.

Nationally, the conversation around housing affordability continues to intensify and we have been fortunate to be a part of framing the policy landscape for leaders at almost every level. Atlanta’s FBDI has engaged staff with Senators Ossoff’s and Warnock’s offices, in addition to hosting a roundtable for US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge. Moreover, we continue to engage private leaders to ensure continued support and innovation for projects. One such leader was philanthropist John Legend, who recently visited public land and FBDI sites slated for activation in the next 24 months. This work is not new but each day, an ever-growing need for affordable housing across our nation underscores the need for investment in our work. In Atlanta, faith-based institutions have a long history of creating housing through community development corporations and community development financial institutions, which have become less popular vehicles for neighborhood change over the last twenty years, despite the shift in need. As a result, municipal government innovation has become all the more critical, which is why today this work lives in the Housing Innovation Lab within the Mayor’s Office to continuously test new solutions to new challenges. The creation of Housing Innovation Labs has increased within municipalities over the last ten years, particularly in large cities like Boston as well as within educational institutions like UC Berkeley, UNC Charlotte, and NYU. The search for a solution continues even here in Atlanta, with a recent Design Studio report led by Georgia Tech students entitled, “Building in Good Faith,” which details many local, faith-based organizations’ journeys into development for the first or second time and all the possibilities and perils that come with such an undertaking.

My career in government began as a FUSE Executive Fellow focusing on a specific project of testing ways to retain housing options for low-income legacy residents in the City of Atlanta, but it has expanded into a journey in service to all residents by ensuring Atlanta is the best city in the nation to access safe, affordable, and quality housing in the United States. ♦