What I learned in Atlanta about equity and inclusion - Metropolitan Planning Council

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What I learned in Atlanta about equity and inclusion

Atlanta Stakeholders (from L to R): Danny Shoy of the East Lake Foundation; David Jackson and Rob Brawner of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership; Carol Naughton and Damon Bailey of Purpose Built Communities

Last month, a group of curious explorers—MPC staff and partners from across the region—set out on an expedition to discover how other regions were addressing issues of segregation, equity and inclusion. Our exploits first took us to Seattle, which you can read more about here, and later to Atlanta.

Our mission for the Atlanta trip was clear—to learn more about what led to profound drops in economic and racial segregation between 1990-2010 and to understand what, if any, impact that had on advancing regional equity.  When MPC released the findings from the first phase of our Cost of Segregation report in March 2017, our analysis of America’s 100 largest metro areas showed the Atlanta region had significantly decreased in Black-White segregation over the 20-year study period. In particular, the city dropped from the 21st to the 41st most segregated region during a time when the Chicago region’s segregation ranking remained almost stable, changing only from being the 8th to the 10th most segregated region in America. With our interests sufficiently piqued by these trends, we rounded up 15 stakeholders in the nonprofit, philanthropic, public and private sectors and flew down to Atlanta for a 3-day learning trip. We wanted to better understand the historical contributing factors to Atlanta’s improvements, as well as some of the current initiatives currently underway that could potentially inform successful policy implementation here in Chicagoland. We were fortunate to connect with and learn from some of the Atlanta region’s most esteemed thinkers and doers around these issues.

Here’s what we learned:

Regional growth and desegregation does not equal regional equity and inclusion

The data is clear that, over our study period, the Atlanta region has experienced tremendous growth from both population and economic standpoints.  Between 1990-2010, the region experienced a 72.4% population increase, with a large portion of growth stemming from an almost 10% rise in the black population. Within the same period, the median income grew from just over $41,000 to close to $61,000—a 32% gain.

Unfortunately, lowered levels of segregation do not automatically translate into increased economic opportunity for people of color.

In many ways, the influx of racially, ethnically and economically diverse new residents—from other parts of the U.S. and the world—contributed to lower levels of segregation. As growing populations of Asian-Americans and Latinos migrated to Atlanta, they largely moved directly to the suburbs.  This coupled with African-Americans moving out of the central city into suburbs, both voluntarily and involuntarily, and more Whites moving into the City from the outskirts.

Unfortunately, lowered levels of segregation do not automatically translate into increased economic opportunity for people of color. Despite Atlanta being one of the fastest growing regions in the country, the region also has the highest level of income inequality in the nation, fueled by concurrent growth in high-wage, tech sector jobs which attracted diverse talent from afar, and low-wage jobs. The median income for African-American families in the region has stagnated at $28,000, compared to $80,000 for Whites. This picture of economic progress without inclusion has led to many of the same challenges that we struggle with here in Chicago neighborhoods that have experienced tremendous revitalization juxtaposed with those that have been plagued by vacancy, disinvestment and population loss.

Education is the key to success

While this certainly isn’t a groundbreaking new discovery, we were blown away by the success story of East Lake a former public housing development in what was once considered to be one of Atlanta’s most dangerous neighborhoods, anchored by what was one of the worst performing schools in the City. All of this turned around when Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit whose approach to community development centers around mixed-income housing, education and community wellness, set its sights on transforming its neighborhood school as a means to broader community revitalization. Once the elementary school began performing at a higher level, the neighborhood became more attractive for families of higher incomes. What resulted is a holistic model that incorporates education, housing and coordinated funding—all led by a “community quarterback.” This has not only reduced poverty levels among the existing community, but has transformed the neighborhood and the three schools that now operate here into mixed-income, racially integrated places of choice. Seeing the tremendous success experienced in East Lake reminded us just how critical education is to this conversation around inclusion and equity, not only for ensuring that lower-performing schools have the necessary funding to meet the needs of their students, but also for funding to sustain the types of partnerships and collaboration that is necessary among community partners to meet the needs of families as well.

Proactive planning is key

Multi-use trail along Atlanta's Beltline

“Buy more land than you ever think you’ll possibly need.” This sentiment was one that was echoed by a number of the regional stakeholders we met with. In a way, this cautionary refrain reflected the level of success that their various community revitalization efforts had yielded. The Atlanta Beltline is a transformative development currently underway along a 22-mile loop of historic rail lines that aims to connect neighborhoods and assets through a soon-to-be-expanded transit system, trails, greenspace and housing. At its inception, the Beltline’s principle challenge was getting buy-in for an initiative that was optimistically framed as an economic development effort to help bolster and connect some of the city’s most historic and challenged neighborhoods. Not even the Beltline’s creators envisioned the level of investment this would spur and the resultant threats to displacement of long-time residents along the way. The Beltline has since come under fire for its failure to meet its affordable housing goals that were identified at the onset of the project. The reasons for this varied, but ultimately pointed to the importance of an established strategy, prior to large-scale revitalization efforts, in order to determine how housing will be preserved affordably and to have an effective delivery system for doing so.

One of the promising preservation initiatives we learned about was the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund Program. Investments on Atlanta’s historic West Side, such as the community’s new football stadium, fueled concerns about increases in property taxes and eventual displacement of long-time residents. A local nonprofit, Westside Future Fund, partnered with the City of Atlanta to raise funds from philanthropic and private organizations that will be provided as grants to existing homeowners to help subsidize property tax increases.

The City of Atlanta is also exploring ways to protect naturally occurring affordable housing units, for example providing incentives to landlords to make modest rehab through a forgivable loan program coupled with technical assistance.

Chicago is doing something right

We walked away from our Atlanta conversations with a much better understanding of what was (and wasn’t) working in their region. We also walked away with a dose of perspective around some of the things we learned that Chicago is doing relatively well. One of the key challenges that Atlanta residents face in their region is a weak civic and physical infrastructure. Chicago is known for its rich presence of unions, community organizers and community development corporations who have figured prominently into our city’s evolution and political history. Similarly, despite its many challenges, our public transportation system is a true asset providing vital connections between housing, amenities and industry across our region. Atlanta’s public transit system, MARTA, has the distinction of being the largest transit system in the country that receives no State funding—in comparison about 20% of the RTA’s transit funding comes from the State. At the time MARTA was formed, three major counties surrounding Atlanta opted out of the transit network due to concerns that with it would deliver more African-Americans and integration. These same counties are now on track to be part of the proposed expansion, having been isolated from the job growth that areas near transit have enjoyed over time. Issues of connectivity across the Atlanta region are further complicated by the fact that 80% of low-income people live in the suburbs, largely disconnected from job centers. They have made some promising strides though, just recently passing a $2.5B referendum to fund equitable transit-oriented development and affordable housing around transit over the next 40 years.

We set out on this journey to gain perspective for the work we’re doing to promote equity and inclusion in the Chicago region. Along the way, we learned from Atlanta partners the importance of genuine and holistic collaboration around neighborhood transformation, strategic funding and support for institutions that are critical to neighborhood quality, proactive planning and centering equity in our intentions for community investment. I am hopeful that we can build these lessons into our own implementation efforts, recognizing our strengths and successes up to this point, as well as the many opportunities we have to build from where we are.

The learning expeditions to Seattle and Atlanta were made possible through the generous support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Enterprise Community Partners and the Ford Foundation.

Learn more about MPC's Cost of Segregation-related research trips to Seattle and Atlanta:

"An Education in Equity: What unique interventions in Seattle taught MPC and partners about addressing disparities" by Kendra Freeman 

"Data Points: Allied, not sleepless, in Seattle" by Alden Loury

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