The “economy” is doing better but I am seeing more homeless in Atlanta

I am seeing more homeless people in my West End Atlanta neighborhood. I have seen at least one sleeping in his vehicle. Others make use of the parks to sleep at night.  What I see on the ground does not coincide with the claims made in Washington of a booming economy.

WABE, citing data collected from the city of Atlanta, reported that the homeless population numbers around 3,000 people and is allegedly on a decline.  And last year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Atlanta ranks among America’s neediest cities based on 21 metrics including child poverty and the number of uninsured. Homelessness is the result of a number of factors including the lack of affordable housing, poverty, discrimination, and shifts in the economy. Can city policies adequately impact these factors?

Take the factor of affordable housing. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has made affordable housing one of her top public policies, but it appears to me that such an approach falls out of line with one important goal of a city: to generate tax revenue necessary for providing the amenities that keep citizens interested in living in Atlanta.  Land owners want to see property values rise and see an increase in the revenues that their properties generate.

Also, as city leaders continue their efforts to make Atlanta a job center, they have to keep in mind that as part of the efficiencies offered by a city is the location of housing close to job centers.  Housing located close to job centers may also end up being some of the most costliest housing.

I ride into Buckhead every day from southwest Atlanta. I have blogged before about how the MARTA train feels more like those conveyor belts loaded with coal that go into a furnace to fuel a production facility.  In this case the human coal are the lower and middle income individuals heading into Buckhead to work a job that, ironically, may be on the chopping block in a few years due to artificial intelligence.  If these people can’t afford to live close to an employment center where they can walk to work, the pressures of living will really increase when they have to find alternative employment.

But even with current employment, there may not be enough affordable housing available because landlords will be under pressure to meet rising property taxes resulting from the increased values of their properties, at least in the short run. This rise in value and ensuing property taxes will result from increased demand for housing that Atlanta expects to face over the next ten years.

Let’s not forget the upward pressure expected on interest rates over the next two years.  Property owners will have to increase rents in order to cover higher mortgage rates.  For the city of Atlanta it means higher bond servicing costs as the city continues to raise money through bond issues for its development and operational needs.

Affordable housing, because of the above pressures, won’t increase in supply.  Only an economic downturn may bring about cheaper rentals but even that will be short lived because a downturn in the economy means a slowdown in hiring and the specter of non-affordability due to increased lost income.

Politics wise, it is time for elected officials, particularly Democrats, to eliminate the affordable housing mantra from their campaign slogans.  They won’t be able to achieve it at any meaningful scale.

 

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Atlanta should avoid the net neutrality debate. It’s not good for business

Internet Innovation Alliance co-founder Bruce Mehlman posted an article yesterday discussing the positive impact relaxed regulatory requirements can have on investment in and deployment of broadband networks. According to Mr. Mehlman, investment in broadband rose by $1.5 billion to $76.3 billion.  He contrasts this to the $3.2 billion decline in investment between 2015 and 2016.

What made the difference? According to Mr. Mehlman it was the decision last year by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal their 2015 open internet order, a decision that put into regulatory code a number of net neutrality principles.  The 2015 order treated broadband access providers as telephone companies by applying consumer and telephone network management rules that were based on communications law from the 1930s.  That approach, according to Mr. Mehlman, just can’t fly in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, Washington has been embroiled in a debate over how net neutrality principles should be applied.  There is a consensus among opponents to and proponents of net neutrality principles that consumers should be able to access web content of their choice; that content providers should not have their traffic speeds throttled by broadband access providers; and that broadband access providers should be transparent about the terms and conditions of their services.  Whether a rule by a regulatory agency is the best approach to ensuring these policy goals is an issue.

Getting to yes on net neutrality may be best brought about by an action of Congress.  Defining net neutrality in the law and laying out the components of its meaning will give content providers and broadband access providers definitive guideposts that help settle any conflicts in the future.  Without a congressional action, the industry and consumers run the risk of a back and forth regulatory battle driven by changes in political power, particularly when a new presidential administration takes over and a new chairman is appointed.  That type of uncertainty every four years is not good for consumers or business.

As more people and businesses move to Atlanta, regulatory certainty becomes an asset for the person who telecommutes; for the financial technology company that needs to maintain connection to its app subscribers; to the student who relies on distance learning to complete assignments.

Treating a broadband provider facing competition from three or four more broadband providers as if they were a monopoly local telephone company in 1934 won’t contribute to Atlanta’s continued growth.

City of Atlanta’s response to Brian Kemp’s victory: silence

Today, Stacey Abrams acknowledged that a court-facilitated path to the governor’s office in Georgia is not there. Although not a traditional concession that the race is over, her Republican challenger, Brian Kemp, can now proceed to taking over the governorship without the distraction of court challenges.

What does this mean for the city of Atlanta in the short term? Besides having a ground level view to a smooth and peaceful transition of power intended by the designers of American democracy, I believe not much. The city’s residents are preparing for the holiday season, with Thanksgiving next week and Christmas coming in the next five.

Over the next two years I suspect that residents will take note of predicted changes in the economy, specifically increasing bank rates, inflation, and increasing bond yields on Treasury notes.  As the population continues to increase and demand for housing along with it, Atlanta’s lower income class will be the first to feel the financial pressure as homes become less affordable, businesses raise prices, and the gains in labor start to fade.

Although local elected officials will bear the brunt of increasing criticism for the state of the city’s economic affairs, Mr. Kemp, in order to ward off a successful election challenge in 2022, will have to come up with an economic management plan that at least prevents Atlanta from spawning the next challenger.

As for Atlanta city government’s relationship with the Governor and the Georgia General Assembly, I have yet to see whether one exists.  If today is any indication, Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Bottoms, had not, at the time of this writing, issued a press release congratulating the governor-elect.

It also does not help that Mrs. Bottoms has aligned herself with the “sanctuary city” movement where local city officials and civic groups have challenged federal immigration laws requiring cooperation with federal agencies in the detention of undocumented foreigners residing in the United States.

Having not spent time herself as a member of the Georgia Assembly, nor, based on her bio, no time in political or non-political positions requiring engagement with the governor’s office or the general assembly, Mrs. Bottoms seems to be falling further behind on the legislative and executive front as a result of not being in a position to foster these relationships.

That said, it is still early in the political game heading into the 2019 legislative session. There may be time to build those relationships.

 

Urbanization: Atlanta isn’t Delhi … yet

According to economist Dambisa Moyo in her book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth and How to Fix It, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and that number is rising.  In this Bloomberg podcast, Stephanie Flanders provides some insights into the inequality brewing in urban areas while at the same time serving as a hub for attracting workers seeking higher incomes.

In the podcast, Ms.. Flanders uses Delhi, Mumbai, and other cities in India as case studies for urban population and economic growth, the problems with governance, and income and wealth inequality. I don’t have to travel to south central Asia to witness inequality.  Living in Atlanta I see inequality everyday where a significant population of Blacks and Latinos take the train into Atlanta’s core to go to work.  Cranes are everywhere downtown as the city continues to put up new office and residential buildings.

And just this evening, Atlanta’s city council heard over seven hours of public comment before approving a proposed project that would turn 40 acres of downtown space into a complex of residential and commercial space.

The concerns about inequality have leaked into public policy proposals, including promises in 2017 by then mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms to increase the amount of affordable housing in Atlanta.  Today, Mrs. Bottoms is mayor and, to her credit, has made affordable housing the tip of her economic development spear.  Late last evening Mayor Bottoms scored big in persuading Atlanta’s city council to approve the $5 billion project.  One condition of project approval was for developers to set aside a required minimum affordable housing units of 20% or 200, whichever is larger.

I think even with these efforts, Atlanta is on its way to being unaffordable for middle income residents.  Buckhead, Midtown, and soon downtown will be out of reach for the middle class.  Even residential areas in the southwest and southeast quadrants of the city may be unaffordable for an increasing number of residents as people moving back into the city with either sufficient capital or credit have been able to take advantage of low rates and purchase homes in the West End, Westview, and Adair Park sections of the city.

What should Atlanta policymakers do? Nothing. A tax and income redistribution scheme may only provide very short term relief to the middle income populace. Higher property taxes would threaten housing values and give homeowners second thoughts about maintaining residence in Atlanta.  Requiring developers to set aside affordable units for each of their projects can only go so far given the limit on the number of appropriate projects in the first place.

As Ms. Flanders points out in her podcast, municipalities in the United States may have a bit more independence and flexibility to effect affordable housing policy but eventually the market for housing, available capital, and credit markets will limit the availability of units overall and affordable housing in particular making urbanization a difficult environment for the middle class.