Atlanta’s BeltLine: A Gentrified Path

For some, the Atlanta BeltLine provides a picturesque opportunity to hike, bike and explore the city. The 22-mile loop of trails and parks, based on old railroad corridors, claims to be “Where Atlanta Comes Together,” a paragon of urban innovation and economic development. But the reality isn’t quite as pristine — for many, the BeltLine’s development has come to represent gentrification and displacement.

Gabriel Eisen (18Ox, 20C) has worked with the “BeltLine for All” campaign since 2017. An offshoot of the Housing Justice League (HJL), the Atlanta-based grassroots nonprofit seeks to preserve affordable housing and mitigate the effects of gentrification caused by the BeltLine. The HJL started the “BeltLine for All” project in the summer of 2017 after realizing the havoc that gentrification had wreaked on the areas surrounding the BeltLine.

“These neighborhoods … [have] seen a lot of disinvestment over the last 20 or 30 years,” Eisen said.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin created the nonprofit Atlanta BeltLine Partnership (ABP) in 2005, with the first trail opening in 2008. The BeltLine has since raised over $4.1 billion and now consists of five open trails and seven parks, according to its website.

Wherever the BeltLine goes, Eisen explained, development and eventual gentrification follow. The BeltLine’s allure has resulted in increased property values in the areas that surround its path, causing many residents to vacate their homes due to increased rent costs.

“These aren’t people who can afford to pay rising rents and rising property taxes,” Eisen said.

Eisen’s daily involvement with the BeltLine includes grassroots community organizing and petition coordination, through which he seeks to inspire those affected by the BeltLine to bring their issues to Atlanta City Hall. He said he finds frustrating to see community members and Emory students enjoy places with a history of gentrification, such as Ponce City Market, without knowledge of said places’ histories.

“[They’re] literally walking on the neighborhood of a largely African American and working-class community that was [on the property of Ponce City Market] 10 years ago, and it’s gone [now],” Eisen said.

Though Eisen said that gentrification is ultimately inevitable because of the nature of future development, he plans to continue his fight for affordable housing in Atlanta.

Despite the Atlanta BeltLine’s claim that it “supports affordable workforce housing” and holds its “eye towards sustainability,” the project has done seemingly little to support affordable housing for lower-income residents already living in the area.

“Basically, we’re halfway through the timeline of the BeltLine project, and very few affordable houses have been built,” Eisen said.

Some displaced residents have found homes in the historically low-income Atlanta neighborhoods including Pittsburgh, Ga. and Mechanicsville, Ga., but there is no guarantee that these areas will remain safe from future gentrification.

When the BeltLine was established, there was no affordable housing requirement. Because of the HJL’s advocacy efforts, government officials passed an ordinance that would require the construction of 5,600 affordable housing units and the preservation of as much pre-existing affordable housing as possible.

“They were just gonna build the BeltLine, and it was going to do what it was going to do,” Eisen said. “[The founders of the HJL and other affiliates] pushed for the original 5,600-unit requirement, which is not being lived up to.”

Since then, the HJL has had one victory: a mandatory inclusive zoning policy for the BeltLine area. The policy mandates that households below 60 percent of the Area Median Income receive 10 percent of new complexes built after January 2018, and that households below 80 percent of the Area Median Income receive 15 percent.

Eisen calls the BeltLine’s gentrification an “injustice,” saying that people should not be pushed out of their neighborhoods due to economic reasons.

“The great irony of the BeltLine is the way that [it] is funded,” Eisen said. “The property taxes of the people in these areas are diverted. All of their property taxes, instead of going to state, instead of going to schools, they’re going to the BeltLine project itself.”

According to Eisen, there is little hope in stopping the BeltLine’s expansion soon, as it has operated for over 10 years. Eisen also acknowledged that nonprofits have a limited ability to put policies into effect. Despite this, the BeltLine for All group continues to advocate for policies that will create more affordable housing for current Atlanta residents affected by the BeltLine.  

“We’re just trying to make sure that as many people as [possible] can stay in the neighborhoods that they’ve lived in for a long time and that the BeltLine builds as much affordable housing, at least as much as they promised and hopefully much more,” Eisen said.

Another dedicated volunteer, Olivia Feeney who is a voluntary service fellow at HJL, said that the best way to get involved with the campaign is to sign the “BeltLine for All” petition “to hold the BeltLine accountable to their affordable housing promises.”

“We’re trying to … hold them accountable to that goal [of 5,600 affordable housing units],” Feeney said. “Then, hopefully, we’ll be able to push them even [further] to have more policies that would prioritize affordability and housing and allowing people to stay in their homes.”

Alison Johnson, co-author of a 2017 HJL report on gentrification and displacement, said that this isn’t the first time gentrification has been disguised as redevelopment efforts, pointing  the case of Ponce City Market.

“Later down the line, [these changes] only contribute to the displacement of families and, in particular, black families in Atlanta,” Johnson said.

Eisen explained that Atlanta residents should not have to choose between having the BeltLine or having affordable homes.

According to Eisen, the goal of “BeltLine for All” isn’t to get rid of the BeltLine, but to make the BeltLine accessible to all without displacing low-income residents. There is no reason that having the BeltLine and ensuring affordable housing should be mutually exclusive, he explains.

“So at the end of the day it shouldn’t have to be an either or [situation],” Eisen said. “That’s what we always come back to … The whole concept of development without displacement is that you get both. People get to stay there and the neighborhood gets to be nicer.”