When Mayor Andre Dickens steps to the podium to deliver his State of the City address, residents like Vanessa Turner hope he’ll talk about his administration’s progress on addressing crime and public safety.
The 69-year-old retail sales clerk lives in the Wheat Street Towers retirement community, located in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. She keeps a stun gun in her car, a precaution she took after young men blocked her path as she was trying to enter her building a month ago.
“There’s a lot of drug-infested people that hang out in my area. … People park their cars there and sell dope just like they own that area, and if anybody even tampers with it, you might get shot,” she said.
Black residents like Turner have a lot of questions they want Dickens to answer during his speech, which is set to take place on Tuesday, March 28. This will be Dickens’ second State of the City since taking office more than a year ago, and, in addition to crime, his constituents are curious to hear more about the city’s push to address an affordable housing crisis, rising inflation, and employment.
The State of the City is where mayors tell their constituents how the city is fairing on a number of fronts, and give residents updates on proposed policies. Dickens’ staff says the mayor will lay out his vision for 2023 during the address.
The mayor’s office hasn’t released final details yet on the event’s time and location, but it will be streamed on the city’s social media channels.
“It’s a good means of communicating and to have people discussing issues in the city,” said political consultant Rodney Adams. “A good conversation can spark some ideas, and we might get some solutions to some of this stuff.”
In 2021, Dickens’ predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, set a goal to ensure that 85% of residents lived within a half mile of fresh food by 2022.
The lack of grocery stores in some Black neighborhoods is a major concern for residents like Clark Atlanta University student Ibshatu Seisay following the closing of a Walmart near the campus that caught fire in December.
“People now have to use Instacart,” Seisay said. “I’ve seen people that even carry heavy groceries for a five-, 10-minute walk, and it could have been a one-minute walk.”
In Fulton and DeKalb counties, 20% and 18% of Black people, respectively, are “food insecure” or unable to consistently access adequate nutrition due to cost, location, or other barriers, resulting in hunger or malnutrition. By comparison, just 5% of white people are food insecure in those counties.
Crime and public safety
Atlanta’s homicide rate has been on the rise for the last three years. Overall crime has been a major concern for Atlanta residents. Dickens’ staff says a major focus of his address will be the Year of the Youth initiative. The program unveiled by Dickens in January seeks to eliminate barriers and amplify services available to the city’s children, teens, and young adults to ensure they have the resources they need to succeed in life.
It’s one of several programs Dickens has launched in an effort to reduce crime in the city, where young Black males ages 18 to 34 make up a disproportionate share of both homicide victims and suspects, according to a 2021 National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform study.
The years-long Buckhead City saga was frustrating for West End neighborhood resident Greg Manley, who said he wants Dickens to talk about how he plans to allocate more city resources to poorer Black neighborhoods like his that need them more than affluent white ones.
Manley, 36, works at the West End Mall, which he said has seen a smaller police presence than Buckhead’s Lenox Square mall since the pandemic began. He took exception to the city increasing the police presence in Buckhead in response to the neighborhood’s cityhood movement.
“We vote Black mayor after Black mayor, and every community gets neglect,” he said. “I mean, every community gets something, except Black communities.”
Turner and other elderly Black residents who spoke with Capital B Atlanta said they want Dickens to discuss how he plans to reduce crime in their city.
Some called crime a symptom of systemic issues such as the city’s rising cost of living, which may force some lower-income residents to work additional jobs to pay higher rent prices and spend less time with their children at home as a result.
Westside Atlanta resident Kevin Clemon, 34, was one of several locals who said they want Dickens to talk about raising the minimum wage in Georgia, which could help with other challenges. The state’s current $5.15 minimum wage is more than $2 lower than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which employers in Georgia are legally required to honor.
“With a higher minimum wage, it’ll help offset the cost of inflation,” Clemon said. “That’ll also help deter the crime rate because people will be able to afford things.”
Housing and cost of living
Housing and homelessness were major concerns for East Atlanta resident Mariah Harris, 32, who said she wants Dickens to talk about rent control. She said rent prices and gentrification in her neighborhood have “gotten outrageous.”
“Everything’s really high,” Harris said. “There are a few places that are just OK, but not necessarily in a desirable area.”
Dickens has made creating more affordable housing a major part of his agenda since taking office. He promised to produce and preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2030 in conjunction with his Affordable Housing Strike Force, which officially launched in May 2022. In January, Dickens said his administration had created a total of 5,000 units.
Adams said he expects Dickens to tackle the issue of Atlanta’s housing affordability head on during his speech, but he said the issue isn’t one on which the mayor has unilateral control.
“The corporations are buying up our homes, our residences, but you can’t get that at the local level,” he said. “You’ve got to get that at the state level.”
Dickens can, however, use his position to call on state leaders to do more to address rising rents and the influx of investors buying up single-family homes in Black neighborhoods, according to Adams. “If he can get in there and discuss that, that would be perfect,” he said.
For residents like Manley, they want to hear that the mayor has his Black constituents in mind with any policy proposals or initiatives. Along with his concerns about the lack of resources coming into his community, he also wonders how seeing Black people dealing with challenges throughout the city affects Dickens’ decision-making.
“It’s just like, ‘Dude, you Black. How you OK with this? Do you not drive through the city? And you been mayor for how long?’’ he said. “I want to know what is your awareness to how Black people live in Atlanta.”