Joyland resident Christopher Hill is a retired insurance and real estate professional who has lived in Atlanta since 1992. When Hill got to the southeast Atlanta neighborhood, Maynard Jackson was in his second term of office as mayor. Five administrations later, the 69-year-old stopped to think when asked about how Mayor Andre Dickens had done after one year on the job.
“Rome was not built overnight, so the mayor can’t do everything in a short period of time,” Hill said.
Looking back on the past year, Dickens praised the progress the city has made on issues ranging from housing and employment to crime and transportation.
“One year ago, I officially began #MovingAtlantaForward as the 61st Mayor of Atlanta, and what a great year it has been!” the 48-year-old mayor tweeted on Jan. 3. “Throughout the last 365 days, we’ve seen the power of drawing circles and coming together to move Atlanta, ALL of Atlanta, to a brighter future. Let’s see what we accomplish over the next 365 days — together as we keep #movingatlantaforward.”
After a full first year in office, Dickens and the city still face many challenges, but most Black residents who spoke with Capital B Atlanta indicated they still feel he’s the right leader to confront the city’s problems.
Crime and public safety
Lakewood resident Jarrad “King Jai” Johnson, 34, is a recording artist and manager at the Groomzmen Gentlemen’s Refinery, a barbershop in Little Five Points, who says break-ins are a crime that “could be handled a lot better” in the city.
Johnson said would-be thieves smashed his car windows during two separate auto break-ins in the past month or so.
“I’m not going to say [crime] is out of control, but I feel like maybe it’s stuff that he could probably do better,” Johnson said of the mayor, specifically referencing reducing vehicle break-ins, traffic congestion, and parking fines.
The Atlanta Police Department has blamed repeat offenders and bail reform policies for upticks in violent crime. Under Dickens’ leadership, the city has partnered with Fulton County to create a Repeat Offender Tracking Unit.
The city last year also relaunched the Atlanta CourtWatch program with a focus on repeat offenders, and agreed to lease 700 beds from Atlanta City Detention Center to Fulton County to create more space at Fulton County Jail.
Political consultant and strategist Fred Hicks is the president of Hicks Evaluation Group, a consulting firm specializing in political candidate and issue campaigns that has operated in Atlanta since 2009. Hicks has worked on transportation efforts to expand MARTA, and other infrastructure policy initiatives in the city.
Hicks gives Dickens high praise for how the mayor has addressed crime. Specifically, he touted Dickens’ coming up with creative and innovative solutions, which he noted began long before the former city councilman took office.
“Given what he is able to do as a single, solitary individual, I think that he has done a great job, while recognizing that these issues have not abated,” Hicks said. “The fact that he’s been interested and willing to engage in multi-agency partnerships to address this issue, is noteworthy.”
Affordable housing and rising rent
The cost of housing, rising rents, and gentrification in the city have been issues affecting Black residents for years.
During his campaign, Dickens promised to produce and preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2026 in conjunction with his Affordable Housing Strike Force, which officially launched in May 2022. The mayor’s office says it initiated seven major affordable housing efforts last year on its way to creating a total of 5,000 units.
Dickens recently called on state lawmakers to invest in Atlanta’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The fund is a recurring fiscal reserve for housing that dedicates a portion of the city’s yearly budget to improving and expanding its local supply of affordable units. The city is also calling for General Assembly members to create a state law allowing cities to provide impact fee reductions for affordable housing.
Hicks noted the added challenge the mayor has faced on the issue due to high housing demand from people moving to Atlanta from out of state during the pandemic, driving up the cost of rent and home purchases in the process. He feels Dickens just hasn’t been in office long enough to tackle housing insecurity.
“He hasn’t had enough time to impact this issue,” Hicks said. “COVID, while it hurt other big cities, was a big boom for Atlanta, which is why even right now, even with everything that’s happening, you still have way more demand than you do supply for housing in Atlanta because people are still moving [here].”
Small business and employment
Jaya Black owns Jaya’s Bizarre, an apparel and accessories store in Little Five Points. Black said her sales went up “150%” last year after struggling to get by during the height of the pandemic. That revenue boost allowed her to relocate from a pop-up shop in Atlantic Station to a brick-and-mortar location.
But Black said crime and homelessness are concerns for her and her fellow small-business owners who still operate at Atlantic Station, especially in light of recent youth violence.
“As long as he’s at least addressing those problems, that makes me happy,” Black said of Dickens.
As for housing insecurity, Black had some ideas on what the mayor and city could do to address some of the challenges.
“What are we doing about the homeless?” she asked. “You see the tents on the side and some areas are just trashed out because they [the city] moved them, and they moved right back in. At the same time, we have empty buildings, abandoned buildings standing around. They could be repurposed. Malls … could be repurposed for all kinds of housing. So what are we doing about that?”
Equal employment opportunities are something Hicks and residents say could address some of the questions folks like Black have. For some, it feels like the city — and luck — have been on their side.
Ikeila Jackson is a certified nursing assistant who lives in Smyrna, but attends school at Georgia State University and provides at-home services to clients in Atlanta. Jackson is a former Navy hospital corpsman who said she has been able to find success in Atlanta’s job market, but isn’t entirely sure if that’s a credit to Dickens and local government.
“It seems like people have had a better chance at employment, from what I’ve noticed,” she said. “I think there are resources out there for people.”
Speaking of opportunity, Atlanta’s income inequality was the highest in the nation among large U.S. cities last year. Hicks said when it comes to employment, career service agencies in the city and state need to do a better job helping Black people secure higher-paying jobs.
“I don’t understand why WorkSource [Georgia Portal] and Invest Atlanta are not more active on these fronts, and those are under the control of the office of the mayor,” he said about the two resources aimed at offering resources for potential jobseekers and small-business owners. “You can have a program that feeds kids into doing low-level engineering and other kinds of jobs out there. The contracting, the contracts for the airport, go through the office of the mayor.”
In December, the mayor unveiled a plan to create an Atlanta Department of Labor and Employment Services to help fix the problem.
“Atlanta is a city on the move, and we want to ensure that all — particularly Atlanta’s young people — share in our growing prosperity,” Dickens said in a press release.
Dickens’ office also pointed out its support for the July launch of the BeltLine Marketplace, a small-business incubator working to create more equitable access to commercial space.
Transportation and infrastructure
Atlanta ranks in the Top 10 for U.S. cities with the most traffic congestion. Expansion of the city’s public MARTA system into surrounding suburban areas has been a point of contention for years, partly due to racial tensions between Atlanta’s largely Black population and predominantly white residents of the city’s neighboring counties. MARTA is run by a board made up of officials from the city, metro area, and state.
Dickens has been working to improve MARTA services since taking office. Under his leadership, the city renewed more MARTA infrastructure expansion with increased public support, according to the mayor’s office.
In April, Dickens also reintroduced the Pothole Posse to fix potholes across the city. The group filled more than 10,000 potholes in 2022, the mayor’s office said.
Johnson says that in addition to his aforementioned concerns tied to car break-ins, he wants to see the mayor do more to address traffic and parking congestion in the city. “I feel like parking is one of the biggest [scams] in Atlanta,” he said.
Hicks said Dickens has done an OK job addressing transportation issues, and noted that repairing roads is a public policy issue on which the mayor has more individual control.
“This is an area where you can say, ‘OK, we’re going to ship resources for one whole year and just deal with this issue and repave roads,” he said. “The roads don’t have to be as bad as they are.”
‘Do the right thing’
Hicks says overall, he likes that Dickens’ administration is willing to try creative strategies to address some of the city’s problems.
“They’re trying, and they’re innovative, and those two things carry a lot, because we are at a tipping point in the city, and we’ve got to try something different,” he said.
Before hopping on MARTA at Five Points station to head back to Joyland, Hill reflected on Atlanta’s growth since he first arrived, and it’s become an international city.
Unlike Hicks, Hill has no experience guiding political campaigns or city transportation initiatives, but has been keeping tabs on Dickens. He’s watched Dickens on TV and loosely follows local news headlines. Hill said what he does see in Dickens, after one year, are actions that speak to good intentions.
“I think that he’s trying to do the right thing,” Hill said. “That in itself — making the effort — that’s enough.”