Mayor Andre Dickens says the rapport between Atlanta police and the city’s Black residents is better now than it was before he took office more than a year ago, despite recent protests over the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis, Tennessee, police.
“I would say it has improved over the last year,” Dickens said of the relationship between city police and the Black community. “We have really stood up operations to be very community facing.”
Dickens’ remarks came during a Wednesday afternoon media roundtable event at City Hall. The mayor’s office invited members of the media, including Capital B Atlanta, to the “Ask Me Anything”-style press conference.
In addition to the Atlanta Police Department’s relationship with Black residents, Dickens addressed affordable housing, rent control, and MARTA’s budget issues.
It’s been nearly three years since the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police made national headlines. Dickens said Atlanta officers have done more since he took office to improve their communication and transparency with Black residents and the civil rights groups that support them.
That includes letting the media and civil rights groups access police surveillance footage of controversial encounters.
“We’ve actually allowed the various agencies that want to see tapes to see videotape of police involved incidents,” Dickens said. “I think we have a good handle on making sure that our police are community available.”
Dickens’ team also highlighted the creation of its Connect Atlanta neighborhood watch surveillance program, Repeat Offender Tracking Unit, and Nightlife Division. The latter trains business owners and their staff with how to address matters of public safety.
Dickens noted some of his community-focused initiatives, such as the Atlanta Police Athletic League, which is designed to reduce crime by engaging and connecting young people with activities and services that help them reach their full potential and improve their quality of life.
Dickens’ Midnight Basketball program helped reduce crime in certain neighborhoods, according to his office.
Dickens addressed questions about whether his plan to build or preserve 20,000 affordable housing units by 2030 has been effective. In January, the mayor’s office touted the beginning of seven major affordable housing efforts last year on its way to building or preserving a total of 5,000.
Metro Atlanta loses an estimated 1,500 affordable units per year, according to House ATL, a housing affordability advocacy group. The Atlanta Regional Commission says the local area needs to add more than 10,000 affordable units a year for a decade to make room for low-income residents.
“We won’t be able to build our way out of this crisis,” Dickens acknowledged, adding that the city is also working on career training for Atlanta citizens, particularly those who are younger, so they can obtain higher-paying employment and afford costlier housing.
“We’re coming up with systems to help people graduate out of the need for affordable subsidy,” he said.
The mayor also said he’d be conditionally in favor of establishing a rent control policy in Atlanta if the state legislature decides to lift its current ban.
Earlier this week, state Sen. Donzella James, announced plans to introduce legislation to repeal Georgia’s statewide ban on rent control after meeting with Atlanta community activist Margie McLeod on Monday.
“Yes, I would support it,” Dickens said. “A modern version of rent control, inclusionary zoning, if you will, would be something that I would look at.”
Dickens said he disagrees with the statewide rent control ban, which was enacted in 1984.
“I think that [local] jurisdictions can make their own decision,” he said. “It would be good if Ms. James finds the support at the state legislature to be able to allow jurisdictions to have some discretion in their ability to have a rent control policy.”
The mayor said a control policy doesn’t have to be a “one-size-fits-all” scenario in Georgia, and that rent stabilization would be “helpful.”
“There could be rent control around certain areas, around certain housing types, around a certain period of tenure at the facility, at the housing unit or housing development,” he said. “If [state lawmakers] see how much of a struggle it is for cities and municipalities to be able to have people live in the cities that they work in, they’ll see there’s a need for some flexibility on rent.”
Dickens also addressed concerns about lack of affordable housing being built along the Atlanta BeltLine.
Development of the 22-mile network of public parks, multi-use trails, and transit services, has raised concerns about “green gentrification” in the surrounding community, resulting in elevated rent and home purchase prices.
Dickens worked on creating inclusionary zoning around the BeltLine as a member of the City Council prior to becoming mayor more than a year ago.
He said the zoning requirements, which took effect in 2018, mandate that developers who build apartments along the BeltLine price 10% to 15% of those units at affordable rates.
“So far [we’re] approaching about 1,000 units that have been mandated and that are there along the whole BeltLine trail,” Dickens said.
Many of those affordable units are on the city’s Westside due to Atlanta’s Eastside being more expensive and crowded, according to Dickens, who said developers have been capitalizing on Invest Atlanta’s affordable housing incentive programs.
“We’re also being smart about buying up land and holding land as a city,” he said. “All the city-owned property that’s vacant or dilapidated, we’ve now brought that into a portfolio.”
MARTA’s money problems
Dickens also discussed the city’s relationship with MARTA and the transit authority’s estimated $1 billion funding gap for upcoming projects.
A former MARTA deputy manager who said he was fired from his job last month revealed alleged details about the funding gap two weeks ago in a LinkedIn post.
MARTA CEO Collie Greenwood addressed details about the budget during a Jan. 25 Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee meeting. He said MARTA is nearly done finalizing a revised list of seven Atlanta expansion projects, down from 17, that accounts for rising costs and other factors that made its prior $2.7 billion project plan unrealistic.
Dickens declined to get into specifics, but he said the budget gaps will result in changes to MARTA project plans, and he’s meeting with leaders from the transit authority in the coming days to discuss them.
“I don’t want us to continue to pay consultants doing planning and design on projects that will never see completion because you have a $1 billion shortfall,” Dickens said. “Anything that is not going to get completed, stop paying folks to create documents that will never see the light of day. Put that money into projects, and in the ability to complete that stuff.”