Living Closer Together

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Perhaps it was a naïve, romantic notion to attempt to build a community where rich and poor people live side by side as neighbors. The bankers I contacted certainly thought so. Their consensus was clear: no lender in his right mind would invest good money in a bad neighborhood to build new homes, especially with one-third of them designated affordable. We had the land and we had the vision. Lots of vision. On our survey we had laid out twelve larger homes, twelve of modest size, and twelve small, volunteer built houses - all interspersed to achieve a healthy socio-economic and racial mix. We were long on idealism but short on money! And money, given the scowls on bankers faces, was not likely to be forthcoming. That was fifteen years ago, before Atlanta's inner-city became a hot housing market, before mixed-income development had proven to be economically viable, before the red-lining practices of Atlanta banks had been exposed. It was the persistent digging of an ambitious young investigative reporter that suddenly turned the tables. Sifting through years of lending data and plotting loans on census maps, the reporter uncovered a quite illegal, industry-wide pattern of red-lining - the systematic exclusion of "certain areas" from banks' lending portfolios. No sooner did this exposé hit the press than we were quite miraculously inundated with lenders who expressed great interest in our "innovative idea" of mixed-income community development. The first loan to be made from the hastily assembled Atlanta Mortgage Consortium was for our thirty-six home, mixed-income development. Over the following decade and a half the Tapestry Community (as neighbors named it) would become a sociological and economic proving ground, a living laboratory to test the viability of mixed-income community.

Our "innovative idea", we would discover, was not that innovative after all. In fact it was a very old idea that had endured centuries of testing in village and city life all around the world. In the very same neighborhood where we built our Tapestry Community, mixed-income housing had worked very effectively a half-century earlier. Many of the grand homes that lined wide boulevards had small cottages in the rear where domestic help lived. Around the corner on smaller streets were rows of charming bungalows, interlaced with modest apartment dwellings. For very pragmatic reasons, wealth and workforce, landowner and labor lived in close proximity - they needed what each brought to the life of the community. And this was a norm, not an exception.

It has only been in recent history, since the automobile transformed us into a society of commuters, that we have had the luxury of living in stratified enclaves among people of the same class, color and social status. And homogeneity has sold well. Despite the establishment of laws forbidding racial segregation, we have found ways to distance ourselves from those who are culturally and socio-economically different. We have learned just how profitable the economy of separation can be and have created new lending norms to support it. As I learned fifteen years ago, prevailing real estate wisdom had come to believe that small homes would hold down the value of larger ones and the presence of low-income residents would substantially limit appreciation.

But the economies of separation have finally reached their point of diminishing returns. Sprawl has overtaken us. Workers and owners now sit in the same traffic jams, breathing the same fumes, wasting the same precious hours as they inch their way toward the same workplace. The "wider-highway" solution of the automobile era has now been exposed as myth. Smart-growth, new-urbanism, clean-air discussions all point to the same conclusion: workforce and workplace must find their way back into proximity.

I was recently asked to serve on our new mayor's Affordable Housing Taskforce. Mayor Franklin has seen the importance of mixed-income housing development in Atlanta and has commissioned a taskforce to study best practices and come up with policy recommendations for the city. In addition to the obvious need to streamline the building permitting process and remove bureaucratic obstacles to development, the group has focused on housing strategies to bring workers, managers and owners into closer living and working relationships. Inclusionary zoning is one promising solution, one that the taskforce is strongly recommending.

Inclusionary zoning policy would require that a percentage of "workforce housing" be included in any new residential development in the city. Of course, care must be taken not to discourage life-giving real estate development - that could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. To make the numbers work (a significant challenge in high rent districts), the city can offer density bonuses, property tax abatement, infrastructure improvement, impact fee waivers and an assortment of other inducements. The time is ripe for a well-conceived policy of mixed-income development that accommodates executives and secretaries, school teachers and CEO's, peace officers and building owners all within the same community. Inclusionary zoning offers a time-tested promise to a city of weary commuters ready to relearn the practicality and richness of living with diversity.

Bob Lupton

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