Making the case for ‘workforce’ housing in Decatur

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Clare Schexnyder (right) listens as Sarah Dansby speaks about her experience growing up during a dinner conversation on race held in August at her home. A lack of affordable housing was among issues that bubbled to the top. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage

By Gracie Bonds Staples

As a regularly scheduled meeting of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights drew to an end in late August, Mari Ann Banks, the system equity coordinator of City of Decatur Schools, felt compelled to excuse herself.

“I’m here to answer all your questions, but I can see it’s getting dark,” Banks said. “I have to drive home to Stockbridge, and I have night blindness. I can’t afford to live in Decatur.”

It was a sobering pronouncement, but the truth is a lot of people can’t afford to live in Decatur and it’s been that way for a long while.

“We have an affordable housing crisis,” said Mawuli Davis, a civil rights attorney who lives in Beacon Hill with his wife, Jana Johnson-Davis, and two children. “The problem is there is not enough affordable housing on the market for low- and middle-income people to move into. That’s the problem. It’s frustrating because these crises don’t happen in a day or month. This has been ongoing.”

The Davises saw it coming, but so did Clare Schexnyder, a small-business owner and co-founder of 100 Decatur Dinners, and Phil Cuffey, co-chair of the Coalition for a Diverse Decatur and at-large member of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance, the community-based organization I mentioned earlier.

Cuffey, a resident of the McDonough-Adams-Kings Highway community near Agnes Scott College, said he started to notice things changing soon after he moved here in 2015 from Philadelphia.

“All along Maxwell Street, we started to see for sale signs going up, old homes razed and two-story homes going up,” Cuffey said. “People started calling it ‘million-dollar Maxwell.’


Phil Cuffey, co-chair of the Coalition for a Diverse Decatur and at-large member of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, says there is a big difference between affordable housing and what they call workforce housing. Photo: Gracie Bonds Staples/gstaples@ajc.com

“It was disturbing because I could see the market forces like higher taxes and pressure from investors to sell, essentially forcing longtime homeowners out of the community,” he said. “At the same time, those in the low- to middle-income brackets couldn’t afford to move in.”

Let me hasten to point out that Cuffey is well aware that affordable housing is a charged phrase, that some people hear it and immediately think of “so-called” welfare queens and public housing. It’s why they prefer the term workforce housing.

“We know the battle we’re in,” he said. “It divides a lot of people in the community.”

Bottom line is all of us deserve to have a place we can afford to live, no matter our age, race or income.

And no matter how you slice it, public housing is NOT affordable housing.

“Public housing is federally subsidized housing,” Schexnyder said. “We need more REAL affordable housing that is at a price point where young people, seniors, (workers) and low to moderate income can rent. With ALL the building in the city of Decatur, it’s unacceptable to have basically ZERO truly affordable housing available.”

Up until about 2008, Decatur had been known as one of the most diverse cities in Georgia, not only in terms of race but age, economics and education. But even the latter has since changed with schools becoming more and more segregated, especially in the lower grades.

Just in the past 10 years, Cuffey said, the city has changed from 40% to just 20% African American, mainly because of housing patterns.

“It was clear to us that the diversity that we found so attractive was being threatened,” he said. “If we saw it, surely the leadership saw it.”

The question that looms large for him, the Davises and Schexnyder was why city leaders have been unwilling to reverse the trend.

Beacon Hill activists have been trying for years to get the city to deal with the issue. The problem bubbled up again recently when Schexnyder, along with several other women, hosted 100 Decatur Dinners to spark conversations about race.

And last week, Beacon Hill and the Coalitions for a Diverse Decatur and DeKalb combined efforts hosting a candidate forum on affordable housing and diversity.

All nine candidates — six running for City Commission seats and three unopposed candidates for the City Schools of Decatur School Board, including Jana Johnson-Davis, a former City Schools of Decatur teacher — showed up. The current mayor pro tem, away in Germany on business, was present via Skype.


Jana Johnson-Davis is pictured here with her husband, Mawuli Davis, at one of a 100 dinner conversations on race held last summer in Decatur. She was among the unopposed candidates for school board present at last week’s forum on housing. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage

So, too, was Mayor Patti Garrett, who told me she could not only sense the frustration, she understands it.

“Sometimes it just takes a while for government to find the best solution,” she said.

If things go as planned, recommendations may be on the table as early as next year, when she expects to hear back from the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force.

In addition to crafting a definition of affordable housing, Garrett said, members could recommend something as simple as looking at what other communities are doing or incorporating inclusionary zoning, or adopting new ordinances that would allow for different types of housing to be built.

“It’s a difficult and complicated issue that continues to snowball in urban areas, and we aren’t immune to that,” she said. “That’s why we decided we needed people who could take a deep dive and bring forth ideas for consideration.”

Despite city leaders’ claims they are taking steps to address residents’ concerns, here are the facts:

Between 2004 and 2019, 1,500 units were constructed in Decatur. Only 21 of those were deemed available for workforce housing, and they are located in the 210-unit Arlo apartment complex. Twenty-one.

The cost? $1,500 for a one bedroom.

It gets worse. Right now, 1,500 units are under construction. Only six of those have been designated as “workforce” housing, units that teachers, police officers and firefighters might be able to afford.

Mawuli Davis describes the city as “the haves and have nots.”

“There is no middle ground,” he said. “You’re either wealthy and can afford a million-dollar home or you can get on the waiting list for public housing.”

But you’d have to get behind 12,000 others on a waiting list.

That’s actually true in a lot of metro Atlanta cities, but here people have noticed and are pushing back hard, particularly on the housing issue.

What do they want?

Mandatory affordable housing units in every development that comes up, including at least 100 in the planned Legacy Park, site of the former United Methodist Children’s Home the city purchased a few years ago.

The city hasn’t committed to that but, they said, the recent candidate forum gives them hope.

“I was heartened because all the candidates running recognize (affordable housing) is a problem and we’ve got to change it,” Schexnyder said. “That’s huge. A lot of change could be coming to our city.”

Read the original story on AJC.com.