Acquiring Land for Affordable Housing? Scrap That Idea!

A section of abandoned railway much overgrown with weeds and bush
Atlanta Beltline photo by ciambellina is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Atlanta's Disused Beltline a decade ago. A brave new world of affordable housing? Forget it. Upscale housing developers got there first.

Governments, for all their supposed powers, are clearly at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with private enterprise that has sniffed profit in the wind.

Sandy Springs, a newish satellite city close to big-time Atlanta, GA, recently held public discussions about avoiding gentrification. Sandy Springs invited officials associated with Atlanta’s Beltline project. That initiative has, over the past few years, encouraged development along an abandoned railway loop that has been converted to a walking trail.

Gentrification has hit Beltline districts big time.

The Sandy Springs meeting had a pointed question for their big city guests concerning the explosion of Beltline housing: what happened to Atlanta’s well-publicized plans to maintain a mix of affordable housing in the Beltline districts? Little progress appeared to have been been made in that direction.

The response from one Atlanta official was both revealing and regretful. It seems that Atlanta’s city-sponsored project was little more than a lowly flatfish in a school of voracious land acquisition sharks. The result? Atlanta managed to grab a bite or two for planned affordable projects in the midst of the Beltline land feeding frenzy and the city wound up in last plaice.

Without affordable land, Atlanta’s mixed housing neighbourhood ideas have become immeasurably harder to fulfill.

Atlanta Beltline’s vice president of housing Dwayne Vaughn put it succinctly, “he who controls the land can control affordability.”

Read more : Sandy Springs Talks Affordable Housing And Atlanta Beltline

Private enterprise viewpoints on the challenge of building affordable housing tend to revolve around the rising cost of materials, as well as the cost or scarcity of labour. Land seldom gets a mention. That’s because the housing development industry would rather treat land as as secret weapon, and the emphasis is decidedly on ‘secret.’

Land banking by developers with deep-pockets is a major source of housing industry profit. Why provide land for an affordable project today, when siting a luxury project upon that land in, say, ten years time, might vastly more profitable?

Communities themselves do wind up ‘banking’ land through tax default or gifts to a city. But should a community aggressively begin speculative land banking, it is easy to imagine the outcry from free market advocates, and the political pressure against ‘socialist, big government’ interference with the rightful workings of the capitalist free market.

Solutions? Few, and relatively cash-poor unfortunately. Non-profits have every right to participate in a land feeding frenzy. But as land sharks, to mix a metaphor, they have small pockets.

Still, there is cause to celebrate the odd non-profit victory in the land-sharking game. Durham North Carolina’s Scrap Exchange took advantage of a source of cheap land in American communities: the changing buying habits of citizens (think internet) lowered the value of malls and box-store developments. Older strip-mall properties can be relatively inexpensive.

Having purchased such a commercial property for their own purposes, the Scrap Exchange woke up one day to discover that surplus to their own requirements, they were sitting on a pre-requisite for affordable housing — inexpensive land.

Now they’re acting on it. Read more at WRAL: Durham’s Scrap Exchange Looks To Recycle Parking Lot Into Affordable Housing