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Can This Community Activist Get Rent Control on the Ballot?

Activist Margie McLeod, 75, has been pushing local politicians on the issue. She finally got one to listen.

Community activist Margie McLeod (left) discusses rent control policy with another Atlanta resident inside a Dollar Tree store on Campbellton Road in Atlanta in January. (Chauncey Alcorn/Capital B)

Community activist Margie McLeod spent years watching gentrification spread across Atlanta before deciding to do something about it last year. The 75-year-old retired bus driver grew tired of seeing her neighbors in Cascade kicked out of their homes after landlords dramatically raised their rents.

Rates in South Atlanta soared during the first half of 2022 as developers and landlords looked to capitalize on the city’s booming housing market. The monthly cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta rose 31% over the five years prior to last April, according to Zumper, a private rental platform.

There were “families out on the street and people crying, seniors getting put out,” McLeod told Capital B Atlanta. “We don’t have [enough] shelters to put these families in, and they’re in the street, cold, hungry.”

McLeod worked with other community activists to launch a grassroots campaign last April to establish a rent control policy in Atlanta that would limit how much property owners can charge. She grew up in New York City, where rent control laws have existed since the 1920s, and believes an Atlanta rent control policy would help the city solve its affordable housing crisis, which has had a disproportionate impact on Black folks in certain areas.

Today, the city commonly referred to as a Black mecca only has a Black population of about 48%, down from more than 66% in 1990. Some residents have been forced into homelessness or to move in with relatives. Others have relocated to the suburbs or to more rural areas to find more affordable places to live.

“I want us, the people, the community, to rise up and demand rent control because we are not going to be able to stay in the city of Atlanta in the future,” McLeod said.

Rent control policies have been banned in Georgia since 1984, but McLeod finally got the support of a state lawmaker this week after lobbying the Atlanta City Council without much success. Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, said she plans to introduce legislation in the Georgia General Assembly in the coming weeks that would repeal the state’s ban on rent control laws. She also plans to work with researchers from local universities and colleges to study the feasibility of implementing a local rent control policy.

“It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to work with [Republicans] and hopefully they will put a cap on [rent] if they do nothing else,” James said. “We’re not going to give up until we get a good, strong piece of legislation that can pass and help with rent control.”

McLeod was jubilant after her Monday morning meeting with James, even though she acknowledged getting a rent control bill passed in the Republican-controlled General Assembly is a long shot.

“I’m so happy! Oh my God!” she said over the phone. “At least they’re talking about taking it up.”

An ongoing crisis

Spending a few hours with McLeod in the Campbellton Road neighborhood was all we needed to see the scale of the city’s affordable housing crisis.

“Can y’all tell him about the problems y’all are having because of the rent?” she said as we approached a group of people congregating in the parking lot of a Chevron gas station. Several said that rising rents had led them to move or lose their homes in recent years. 

“I’ve been homeless for about six months, man,” Corey Williams, 40, said. “I don’t have nowhere to go. And it hurts.”

Williams said he’s had trouble keeping a job due to a chronic health condition and had spent the past six or seven years living with his brother at the nearby Adams House Apartments complex until last summer. The property owners had raised the rent multiple times, Williams said, and his brother decided to move out as a result. Unable to afford the rent, Williams has primarily been living on the streets ever since.

“My brother wasn’t able to pay it by himself, but at the same time he still did, and then he couldn’t do it no more,” Williams said. “I came home one night and he was gone.”

About an hour later, McLeod walked inside the Campbellton Plaza Dollar Tree store across the street, where more than a dozen people were standing in checkout lines.

“Anyone here having problems paying their rent?” she asked. Several people raised their hands.

One of them was security guard Joseph Bracy, who said that he, his wife, and their three children were forced to move in with family members last year after another property owner purchased the South Atlanta neighborhood home Bracy was renting and raised the rent by $200 a month.

“It’s hard right now,” Bracy said, shaking his head. “When you go up on somebody’s rent $200, that’s a whole lot. I mean $25, $30 is understandable, but $200? It’s crazy. It’s ridiculous.”

Former Atlanta resident Brianna Brown was doing laundry at the Wash & Spin Coin laundromat next door when we entered.

Brown, 29, said she used to live in the notorious Forest Cove apartment complex before the deplorable conditions motivated her to move to East Point with her 6-year-old daughter.

“It was infested and I wanted better for my child, so I moved,” Brown told Capital B Atlanta.

But the cost of rent at her current apartment has gone up from about $940 in 2020 to about $1,700 in January, she said. She now supports a rent control policy for low-income families.

“I really think that they should reach out to the people that need it the most, and that’s people with kids,” Brown said.

A call for rent control

Economists have long debated how effective rent control laws are at keeping prices down, but the policies have gained traction among Democrats on Capitol Hill as housing costs rose prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in major cities across the U.S.

McLeod raised the issue at a Jan. 3 Atlanta City Council meeting, calling on Atlantans to demand that city leaders put rent control to a public opinion vote to see if a majority of residents support creating a local policy.

“Call your council member. Call your mayor. Tell him you want rent control on the ballot,” McLeod said at the meeting. “It can be done in the city of Atlanta.”

City Council members have declined to push for a public vote on rent control, arguing state law won’t allow it. In 2020, the council asked state lawmakers to lift their rent control ban, to no avail. Council member Byron Amos said McLeod and her allies need to take their fight to state lawmakers in the General Assembly.

“Rent control is not a city of Atlanta issue; it is a state issue,” Amos told Capital B Atlanta. “There needs to be a bigger and a wider coalition so the state representatives, state senators can understand that this is not [just] a city of Atlanta, Fulton County, Clayton, DeKalb [problem].”

McLeod said Monday that she still plans to push for a citywide vote on rent control, despite gaining support from Senator James.

Community activist Ben Howard, who works with McLeod, says it’s important that a vote on rent control happens at the city level. Helping Atlantans get a handle on their rising rents isn’t the only goal, he said; he and McLeod also want to empower Atlanta residents to create their own ballot initiatives. 

Politicians “want to be the only ones to put things on the ballot,” Howard said.

McLeod and Howard have tried working with the municipal clerk’s office to create a rent control ballot initiative without the council’s help, but it’s unclear if that’s legal. Council member Michael Julian Bond told Capital B Atlanta that “there is no provision currently under the city charter to allow citizens to put petitions on the ballot.” 

A set of city law provisions suggest there may be a legal process that forces City Council members to create ballot initiatives, but it’s not a simple one. The council must call for an election within 30 days after a petition for an “ordinance or resolution” has been signed by 15% of registered voters and properly filed in the municipal clerk’s office, according to code sections emailed by Deputy Municipal Clerk Vanessa Waldon.

But the law also mandates registered voters sign the petition under oath in the municipal clerk’s office in the presence of the clerk or deputy clerk, and requires signatories to present receipts showing they have paid or are in the process of paying last year’s taxes unless they can prove they’re somehow tax-exempt.

“Our office does not interpret the City of Atlanta Charter and Code for any citizen. Nor do we provide any advice or suggestions regarding city or state law,” Waldon said via email, declining to comment further.

Market-based solutions

City leaders who say their hands are tied on the issue of rent control have been trying other ways to drive rent prices down.

Increasing the number of houses and apartments to help reduce housing costs is a goal shared by Mayor Andre Dickens, a Democrat, and GOP Gov. Brian Kemp. During his State of State Address on Wednesday, Kemp announced the creation of a $35.7 million Rural Workforce Housing Fund, which he said would enable state officials to partner directly with local governments to “develop sites across the state for workforce housing.”

Kemp’s plan would permit local development and housing authorities to build residential buildings in support of places where companies are constructing new work sites to ensure the state’s workforce has access to affordable housing opportunities, according to his latest fiscal year budget report.

“As hardworking Georgians find opportunity and the quality housing that comes with it, they also deserve to live, work, and worship in safety,” Kemp said Wednesday.

Dickens’ office says it is working to ensure publicly funded projects cap rents at affordable rates, in addition to pushing toward its goal of building or preserving 20,000 affordable housing units by 2030.

But McLeod says increasing the supply of houses will take too long to help people who need rent relief right now. 

“We have to get rent control,” she said. “It’s a must.”