Our Day of Social Engineering: A Middle Class Experiment Arrives in Reynoldstown

On Saturday, several friends and I got to witness the birth of a new community amid the fanfare of what was basically a very expensive raffle. The Lofts at Reynoldstown Crossing were making their units available to pre-qualified buyers, offering $60,000 of downpayment assistance to Atlantans who made less than $68,000/year. The idea was to rehabilitate a failed condo project in the Reynoldstown neighborhood, an old industrial, working-class community, as an anchor for the ambitious new Beltline project, which ultimately aims to encircle Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods in a network of light rail, parks, and bike and walking trails.

My friend Jeena applied to get this subsidy from the Atlanta Beltline Partnership and bid on one of the condos. Each person who qualified would have his or her card pulled at an official drawing on December 10th, with the opportunity to pick among whatever units remained available. The first pulled got the best of the units, and a small number were set aside for teachers and first responders, such as police officers, EMT and firefighters. The lucky winners bawled and their friends cheered, and dozens of new neighbors were created in the matter of an hour and a half. We came along to provide moral support for Jeena—and, to a lesser extent, to observe the festive atmosphere that accompanied the execution of this strange model of public-private, government-corporate, affordable-housing-cum-public-transit development. (Also, to get free food—they were giving away delicious sliders the first time we visited.)

As a historian, one of my favorite things to study is the way that people consciously create new environments for themselves, with particular goals in mind. Whether it is European settlers setting the ground rules for a new society in North America, or modernist planners laying out the self-image of a nation in the streets of “invented” cities like Islamabad or Brasilia, it is always intriguing to see a people’s values explicitly articulated in the landscape.

All landscapes, of course, are invented. All are artificial, no matter how much we are told that the suburbs or shopping malls are the result of the “natural,” spontaneous, unplanned workings of the market. Historically, American tax policies helped businesses write off the depreciation of their assets at an accelerated rate, incentivizing the production of cheap, disposable architecture; meanwhile, government plowed money into roads and sewer lines, pushing the outer limits of sprawl, while the Federal Housing Administration subsidizes homeownership for working class and middle class people who might not otherwise afford it. Nothing about suburbia is natural, but the inner workings of this style of urban planning are largely concealed from view. As a result, those benefiting from it don’t feel like they are getting a handout or participating in some grand project of social engineering. (For more in this vein, see Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, or Elizabeth Blackmar’s “Of REITs and Rights.”)

Some projects, though, announce their goals much more clearly. I am personally interested in North Carolina’s Research Triangle as a model of how academics, businesspeople, planners and politicians deliberately created a new kind of economy and a new social mix in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, designed with certain people and a particular (post-industrial, high-tech) vision of the future in mind. These kinds of efforts continue to emerge across the United States, as various government, commercial, and public-private projects try to promote denser development in America’s cities. Oregon’s urban growth boundary system has, since the early 1970s, attempted to promote infill and high-density development by setting a limit beyond which suburban sprawl cannot extend. Advocates of New Urbanism have seen their message at least partly embraced by developers who pursue “live-work-play” projects with condos, shopping, dining and office space in one mixed-use package. Atlanta’s Atlantic Station project appears to pursue such goals in a creepy, corporate, Stepford version of New Urbanism, rehabilitating a brownfield site in midtown where a defunct steel mill once stood as a consumer destination and yuppie living space.

The Beltline, thus, provides an opportunity to see how a Southern city, riven by the politics of suburbs vs. the city, the Republican hinterland vs. the diverse, Democratic core, the middle class vs. the poor, tries to remedy the problems of sprawl and build a walkable urban landscape. The old cures of urban renewal and public housing have been tried and mostly failed. “Slum clearance” in the 1960s wiped out African American and working class white neighborhoods to make way for freeways; purely state-supported interventions into the housing market have also faltered and suffered lasting stigma. The Beltline is a public-private hybrid that draws money from the City of Atlanta and the federal government along with Bank of America, which is not bashful about trumpeting its commitment to affordable housing and “neighborhood revitalization” (not to mention confronting the “foreclosure crisis” that it played a huge part in creating and sustains every single day). The Beltline relies on the idealism of volunteers who believe in its goals of greater density, better public transit, and affordable housing, as well as corporate and political patronage.

The usual debates come up with the Beltline, of course—is this going to gentrify traditionally poor and working class, largely African American neighborhoods, bringing in a horde of new yuppies who raise property values and rents, with Whole Foods and Citarella not far behind? The libertarian wants to know if it is a boondoggle that will benefit a precious few at a disproportionate cost to the whole. The advocate for the working poor wonders what exactly affordable housing means in this context—how will it work and how much “affordable housing” will be offered?

Painful experience has shown that developers may make big promises about affordable housing to sell their projects to local communities, but the actual outcome might end up having less low-priced housing than expected. (See the ongoing struggle over Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.) Indeed, what counts as affordable? The truly poor are unlikely to have the resources to purchase a home even under the most favorable terms, and such projects are likeliest to benefit the lower-middle class whose weekly or monthly income could support a mortgage but who cannot afford to break into neighborhoods where housing costs make it impossible for the likes of police officers and firefighters to live. Such prospective buyers may also not be able to raise the funds for a down payment that could make the monthly cost of a mortgage manageable, since they lack the inherited advantage of parents or other relatives who have the capital to help subsidize a home purchase.

For those aspiring homeowners of modest means, Atlanta’s Reynoldstown offers a combination of high crime and failing schools matched with high home prices and a moderate degree of gentrification. It has a coffeeshop with its very own dog park—an indelible signal of gentrifying success—but it does not yet have its own bars, restaurants, or grocery stores. The Beltline project has to sell Atlantans on the idea of living in this rundown neighborhood of old factories and warehouses, which has neither the upper middle-class amenities of nearby Candler Park nor the hipster vibe of Cabbagetown and East Atlanta, while also making a move to the area financially feasible for potential buyers. To sustain interest in the Beltline and make its vision of dense in-town living a reality, the organization needs residents who are committed to the project’s future. In the early twentieth century, streetcar companies laid out in-town neighborhoods such as East Atlanta just to have customers to patronize their transit lines. The Beltline finds itself in a similar kind of Field of Dreams situation; if you build it (the housing) they will come. And if they come (to buy a loft), you can build it (ultimately, the light rail that will connect the Beltline’s many parks, walking/bike trails, and residences).

At the day of the drawing, everyone from the Beltline worked double time to sustain a sense of infectious enthusiasm. Buyers showed up eager to wait their turn and have their number called. The heavy feeling that typically accompanies making a major life choice like buying a home had been deftly displaced by a carnival-like mood of being a part of a zesty group project. Potential buyers were invited to revisit the different units one last time, to see the thoroughly redone interiors of the condos and imagine what their view would be like looking at the skyline of downtown Atlanta—or, alternatively, looking out the back window at H. Harper Station, a railway depot located along the tracks of the old rail line that would serve as the backbone of the new Beltline, now rejuvented as an upscale cocktail/dining establishment.

When the time came for the drawing, various local pols made brief speeches. A city councilwoman praised the idea of “attractive lovely affordable housing for teachers and policemen.” “This is a grassroots project,” the Beltline’s Chief Operating Officer, Lisa Gordon, declared. “As most of you know, we are putting parks, greenspace, and trails in the abandoned freight rail just behind us to reinvest and connect neighborhoods in the city of Atlanta. And it’s important because the community came up with the idea, and was instrumental in some of the projects we are doing. And one of them was affordable housing, so people who are here can enjoy this project and the amenities and the investments that are being made.” Her goal was “permanent affordability on the beltline for the longterm”—making sure that the project, in essence, did not only benefit the privileged or well-heeled who could afford to buy a pricey property in an up-and-coming in-town location (one that could become even more valuable if light rail is eventually built in the the lofts’ literal backyard).

An executive from the diversity department at Bank of America was also on hand. She noted that she herself lived on the Beltline, and she used the opportunity to burnish the bank’s image by talking about all the wonderful things it was doing to prevent foreclosures. “Our first responders, our teachers, who better than that to stabilize a community?” she said. “And we know how important it is to have role models in the community, and when our police officers are in our community, it gives us a feeling of being safe, and it’s just not a feeling, you do help promote safety, so thank you so much for that.”

The marketing director who was responsible for publicizing and ultimately moving the units was the master of ceremonies. He was like a mutant cross between a televangelist, an airport lounge lizard, and the futuristically bald, coldly efficient Governor of Florida, Rick Scott. He kept the momentum going in tent-revival fashion as names were called from the raffle, and he praised Bank of America for their stalwart support of the project. He had lived along the Beltline for ten years, he said, and he had been in the real estate business for a while. Never had bankers been easier to deal with. “We’re not going to occupy Bank of America,” he pointedly said. “We’re going to love Bank of America.”

And the atmosphere was, indeed, a general love-fest. Even as home prices plummet and we have a so-called overabundance of housing with more and more families becoming homeless, Bank of America’s subsidy of the Beltline helps improve its PR while also moving cops, teachers and other lower-to-middle middle class Atlantans into their own homes, thanks to a sizable chunk of financial assistance. The technicalities of the deal ensure that buyers will be compelled to stay in their homes for as long as fifteen years, as a sort of New Urbanist-gentrification era version of the Homestead Act; if one sells or tries to rent the unit as an “investment property” in the next decade or so, he or she will have to give back the $60,000 down payment assistance. It is not free money, but it is an advantage to anyone who wants a shot at buying a decent place in an interesting neighborhood and plans on staying put for a while.

The most striking thing about the experience was that, in the circus/raffle/revival climate of the drawing, almost everyone whose name was called chose a place, even if it was likely not their third, or fourth, or fifth choice. Most seemed enthused to have a chance to buy any place at all, and once they picked a unit—there are a variety of floor plans on three floors, and they were called to the front to make a decision in front of everyone in attendance—they were escorted off into another room to fill out paperwork binding them to their choice. Most people, when making an epic decision about a home and a thirty-year mortgage, may be picky and dawdle and agonize over little details. That was not an option today, as everything in the process was designed to convey a sense of urgency and inevitability to participants. The vast majority of buyers seemed content to pick whatever was left, happy, apparently, to be getting such a deal on any condo in the development—this, in an environment when home prices in the Atlanta metro area continue their seemingly inexorable slide, while the values of condos and townhomes have cratered in particularly devastating fashion.

Our friend Jeena, however, saw the three units she favored get snapped up in the first couple rounds of selection, and she opted to get on the waitlist for one she really wanted. The enthusiastic bandwagon feeling that came long with downpayment assistance and the dream of joining the Beltline did not necessarily sweep all along its path, no matter how tantalizing the prospect of “free money” (i.e. government and corporate largesse) and urban revitalization might have been for many others. Even in the midst of a continuing real estate meltdown, the Beltline folks achieved the enviable accomplishment of getting almost every unit in a condo development filled in about two hours. The project’s effort to engineer a new middle class enclave along its future light rail managed to turn almost everyone into a willing partner—almost, but not quite.

What does it all mean, though, in the big picture? The fact is that many of these buyers likely could have found another affordable property somewhere else. Plenty of homes are going unsold in Atlanta, and desperate sellers shave another $5,000 here, $10,000 there for each month that their property remains on the market. This is especially true for the glut of condos in the metro area. Bank of America can claim to be doing something about “the foreclosure crisis” by giving (in effect) an interest-free loan of $60,000 to a handful of buyers in Reynoldstown, but this gesture is not actually stopping any foreclosures or keeping anyone in their homes.

As for the Beltline and its agenda, the organization has accomplished something good by laying the foundation of a middle class community of homeowners who will likely be committed to the neighborhood—they are all starting there together, at the same time, and they are all tied to it for the foreseeable future. The two police officers and one teacher who had the first three slots reserved for them benefit (though there was certainly a weird sort of tokenism to the special status and attention they received in the process). The Beltline shows that public-private partnerships that unite local, national, corporate, nonprofit, and volunteer energies can do good things for housing and transit.

I do not want to be the kind of nitpicking naysayer who belittles modest achievements just because they do not solve all the world’s problems, but I do think we should regard such projects with caution—or, at least, we should not let our enthusiasm for them become distracting. Public-private partnerships can do some things well, like getting lower-middle income people into a stylish two bedroom, two bathroom condo in a gentifying community. But they are still people, like my friend, who can keep a roof over their heads one way or another. Like a small number of charter schools that can boast great results with the help of lavish corporate funding, their achievements are difficult to “scale up” because the money is simply not there for anything but a small pilot program that benefits a few people.

Affordable housing does not just mean homeownership. As far as I know, real public housing is not on the Beltline’s agenda, because finding both the financial and the political support for it is probably all too hard. So the people who are most affected by unemployment, foreclosure, and homelessness are not part of the picture, and they will not benefit from the Beltline’s vision (except in a very indirect, long-term sense of benefiting from public transit, oh so many years from now). Again, this is not to detract from the good that the Beltline can and will do. Least of all do I want to belittle the opportunity for working families to gain access to property and build their own assets. But we should also remember that corporate benevolence and “affordable housing” are not going to make shelter a reality for very many people.