The election returns last November generated a bit of discussion among community developers in Georgia last fall for a few reasons. There were certainly implications due to the definitive results of State elections, but it was clear that the results of Congressional elections across the country would impact community development in Georgia even more.
Georgia’s state government had a Democratic majority until 2002, when a Republican governor was elected, and the Republican Party swiftly took majority control of both the State House and Senate. This was a significant shift, but not as drastic as one might think. Even many of Georgia’s Democratic Party members are conservative in nature, blurring the traditional lines on both social and fiscal philosophies between the two parties. Georgia’s representatives generally supportive of community development and affordable housing could be found most predictably in urban areas, but have long been outnumbered (despite population dominance) by representatives from rural and smaller town districts, and they have long been mired in a classic urban / rural struggle for control of policy and resources. There has traditionally been little political traction for the politics of community development, despite the fact that the presence of deep poverty and the need for quality housing cuts across urban / rural and racial categories. Nonetheless, there were opportunities for a few political successes for community advocates – just before that watershed election in 2002, the state had managed to pass one of the country’s strongest predatory lending laws. For community developers, however, frustration is the most frequent result. Gutting that same predatory lending law was among the first actions of the new majority the following year in 2003. More recently, consumer protection and housing advocates have attempted over the last three years to bring some basic level of fairness for consumers to the non-judicial foreclosure process in Georgia with little success. There is no appetite within the Republican Party for this type of change, despite the crippling effect foreclosures have had on the state’s economy and communities.
The most notable result of the 2010 elections in Georgia is the complete dominance of the Republican Party. Georgia is becoming a de facto one-party state. Every single elected and public official leadership office is now held by a Republican, including governor, House and Senate leadership, to attorney general and on through Labor Commissioner. In addition, within months after the election, as many as nine elected representatives switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. One has recently commented that Democrats have become “the party of the Atlanta metro area and of blacks.” This provides insight into the current climate in Georgia where political affiliation for many is more closely tied to racial and geographic identity than to political philosophy. The result is a further extension of the urban/rural and racial divisions in the legislature, with one-party dominance leaving few opportunities for meaningful bipartisan dialogue or legislative action, particularly on issues related to housing.
While this is undesired for balanced governance, it won’t have much impact on Georgia’s investment in communities or community development, other than to continue the status quo. Georgia provides no dedicated support for affordable housing or community development. There is no committee responsible for attending to housing or community development issues. There is a Homeless Housing Trust Fund, but it has no dedicated revenue stream, is poorly funded, and does not finance general affordable housing development. There has been little interest among the State’s Republican leadership to engage constituents on these issues. As a result, housing and community development advocates have relied heavily on federal funds, development revenue and meager philanthropic support to fund their work, and those organizations that have managed to sustain program delivery through the economic downturn have established significant funding relationships with private or institutional partners to bridge budget gaps.
The greatest impact will come from the changes in Congress for both policy and funding. While the majority of Georgia’s congressional representatives remained solidly Republican, the changes to the congressional majority from other states with the addition of the Tea Party influence matter most. Because of the reliance on federal funds in Georgia, expected cuts to community development-oriented programs such as HOME and CDBG in the new budget will significantly curtail impactful community development, simply because of the scale of the vacant property problem. Atlanta’s south- and west-side neighborhoods have been swamped by foreclosures since 2007. A recent sampling of foreclosure hot-spot neighborhoods shows an average 30 percent vacancy rate (through 3rd quarter 2010) in those areas. Atlanta is no longer alone. The foreclosure wave has spread from the urban center to regional counties, which now lead the region in numbers of foreclosures. Vacant property problems will surely follow, which is a new challenge for most suburban communities. Further reduced federal funding without the presence of State resources will extend the symptoms of vacancy and dilapidation currently putting down roots in Georgia communities,
The policy impact could be significant for Atlanta and Georgia neighborhoods as well. The lack of ability to effect meaningful change on Georgia’s lightning-fast and consumer-hostile foreclosure process at the State legislature led to some relief as a few major concerns over consumer protections and rights were covered by new federal financial regulations. A good recent example is the new federal legislation protecting rental tenants of foreclosed buildings. Similar legislation made little movement in the Georgia legislature in 2010, but advocates for that cause appreciated passage of the law in Congress. But the heavily right-leaning State government may no longer have the balance of a center-left-leaning federal government to resolve other glaring gaps for consumer protections in Georgia’s foreclosure process, or other community development priorities.
With the current budget deliberations fixated on proposed massive cuts, where is there a place for discussion about investing for the future? Is there a message that will reach legislators’ ears from either party about the need to stabilize communities in the near term to stave off the repeat of an urban decay cycle? One opportunity for advocates is to more clearly illustrate the strong connections between community stabilization and economic recovery; the connections between housing development and access to jobs or other market investment; to hone the message that economically sustainable communities and quality housing are an integral component of sound regional economic development strategies.
While Georgia’s legislature has been a tough nut to crack, in general, most politicians value strong communities and quality-of-life, but may not fully understand how they are created on the streets and sidewalks of our neighborhoods. Some advocates around the country are already using the argument that affordable housing development is a strong job and economic development generator, and is therefore an important and worthy investment. This message should be sure to include data about the amount of additional dollars leveraged by state and federal investments in housing at the local level, or other types of economic activity leveraged by housing development, to help drive the point. Any argument in this environment will be difficult, but when framed in the context of economic development or dollar-for-dollar returns, community stabilization and affordable housing development ought to often make the case for themselves.