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The Double-edged Sword of Gentrification in Atlanta

Fourth in a series of articles highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . Atlanta

by Lesley Williams Reid and Robert M. Adelman, Georgia State University

Chicago has Lake Michigan, Mexico City is surrounded by mountains; but Atlanta has no geographic boundaries to slow its sprawl. Consequently, Atlanta’s 20 counties and four million people are spread across 6,000 square miles. With this size has come staggering commutes. Atlantans, on average, spend more time traveling to and from work than almost all other metropolitan residents in the United States, surpassed only by residents in New York City and Washington, DC.

While sprawl is by definition the growth of the suburbs, in Atlanta suburban sprawl also drives central city growth. The 2000 census shows that the city of Atlanta’s population increased between 1990 and 2000, the first recorded increase since the 1960 census. Newcomers from the suburbs and transplants from elsewhere have fueled this expansion. But regardless of their origin, these new residents possess moderate to upper incomes and they are moving into older, poorer neighborhoods.

These neighborhoods are changing dramatically. In recent years, in-town Atlanta neighborhoods have experienced transformations associated with gentrification such as increased property taxes, displacement of the poor, and heightened racial tensions. As a consequence, Atlanta is discovering that gentrification is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, city boosters, including politicians, often clamor for more gentrification because it raises tax revenues by replacing low-income residents with middle- and upper-income residents. On the other hand, this displacement can create havoc for poorer, often minority residents. Indeed, while gentrification may be good for the city coffers, it is bad for many residents.

Property Values

The white folk moved out and are now paying anything to move back. – Frank Edwards, Atlanta Resident

In the January 2003 Footnotes article about Atlanta, Charles Gallagher and Karyn Lacy asked to what extent lower-income black residents have been displaced by middle- and upper-income white residents. Without question, rising property values have displaced older, long-term black residents as middle- and upper-income whites bid up property values. While statistics are difficult to obtain, anecdotal evidence indicates that annual increases in property assessments have displaced many residents on fixed incomes as their property taxes doubled or even tripled. In few areas have these increases been as dramatic as in the enclave of neighborhoods on the east side of Atlanta, including Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta. Together, these neighborhoods represent a case study of gentrification in Atlanta and across the United States. Each has characteristics that make a neighborhood ripe for gentrification: They are close to downtown; they have an ample stock of historic housing; their populations are aging, opening opportunities for new buyers; and, of increasing relevance in Atlanta, they have small tracts of undeveloped land for new, in-fill construction.

Property values have skyrocketed, increasing by almost 25% in these three east side neighborhoods over the last year. This one-year increase is a snapshot of a broader trend in these neighborhoods. In Kirkwood, for example, median sales prices soared 275% over the past 10 years. These changes coincide directly with property tax increases. In Kirkwood, property appraisals have jumped 40% annually for the past three years. For some Atlantans, of course, property value increases are welcome financial windfalls presenting opportunity. But, for others, the high values mean unaffordable taxes that force them from their homes. While displacement may be traumatic for homeowners, it is even more troublesome for renters who are forced from neighborhoods as the rental housing stock is decimated.

Changes in Racial Composition

Regentrification, that’s just a nice word for taking black folks’ property. – Billy McKinney, Former State Representative

Issues of race further complicate the economic consequences of gentrification in Atlanta. Racial strife has characterized these eastern neighborhoods for decades, from white flight and blockbusting in the 1960s to gentrification today. Although Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta are predominantly black neighborhoods, whites drive gentrification. Between 1990 and 2000 the white population in these neighborhoods doubled. The most dramatic racial change was in Kirkwood, where white residents increased from 1% to 14% of the population between 1990 and 2000. This area had not experienced such a shift since the 1960s. Between 1960 and 1970, these neighborhoods changed from being almost 100% white to almost 100% black. In Kirkwood, for example, 91% of residents were white in 1960; by 1970, 97% of the population was black.

This earlier transition in Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta was not peaceful. Between 1960 and 1970, these neighborhoods experienced raw, neighbor-to-neighbor racial hostility. Real-estate agents used white anxieties about having black neighbors to blockbust, convincing white families to sell their homes at below-market prices and then reselling these same homes to black families at prime market prices, pocketing the profits. In 1969, a white Kirkwood resident told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he sold his home to a realtor at well below market value only to have a black family buy that same house for the highest price ever recorded. Paired with racial prejudice, this economic exploitation created enmity between long-standing white residents and black newcomers. The manifestations of this antagonism ran the gamut from the arson of a black family’s home, to the incorporation of Eastern Atlanta, Inc., an organization created for the sole purpose of buying property that might fall into the hands of blacks. But the endgame of this hostility was the creation of “vanilla suburbs” as whites moved out of the city en masse. This racial tension from the 1960s set the stage for the racial tensions that undergird gentrification in Atlanta today.

Race and social class are not the only cleavages dividing these neighborhoods. As with much gentrification, the first wave of whites moving back into Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta were gay men and lesbians. In 1998, racial hostility, class antagonism, and homophobia collided in Kirkwood. A gay couple new to Kirkwood filed a civil suit against their black next-door neighbor for creating a nuisance by allegedly selling drugs out of her home. When the neighbor failed to respond to the complaint, the couple was awarded over $35,000 in damages. Soon thereafter, a local African-American minister distributed flyers in the neighborhood calling a meeting of black residents to discuss saving Kirkwood from a “white… homosexual and lesbian take-over.” Not surprisingly, the flyer and subsequent meeting incited controversy in the neighborhood and across Atlanta. Perhaps as never before, this incident and its backlash served to open discussion on the negative aspects of gentrification and provided a voice for the fears of long-term residents.

Political Implications

I don’t represent you because you didn’t vote for me. – Sherry Dorsey, Former City Council Person

The controversy in Kirkwood opened up dialog on gentrification, but it also precipitated the overthrow of a political machine. Sherry Dorsey, the Atlanta city council member representing Kirkwood, East Lake, and East Atlanta, did little to stymie the 1998 controversy. In fact, she incited more racial tension by repeatedly telling new white residents that she was not their representative because they had not voted for her. In the end, she lost her city council seat in 2001, changing the political landscape that had dominated the neighborhoods for years. Her successor, Natalyn Archibong, ran on a campaign to more broadly represent the growing diversity of her constituents. The challenge for her is to balance the demands of new, white residents with the needs of long-term, black residents.


Our job was to…mitigate the negative effects without damaging the positive effects. –Larry Keating, Gentrification Task Force

In response to events in recent years, the Atlanta city government created a task force to deal with the negative aspects of gentrification. The task force suggested that the city institute aggressive affordable housing policies, especially for low-income residents; provide incentives for builders to include affordable housing in new developments; use land seized by the city through tax foreclosures for affordable housing; prevent property tax liens from being sold to private collection agencies; and educate longtime residents on predatory lending and below-market price sales scams. But, as sprawl and long commutes continue to plague Atlanta, the demand for in-town housing will increase. Developers and renovators will be more than happy to meet that demand. Indeed the biggest challenge facing Atlanta is to prevent those who control the market from defining the terms of gentrification. This is a task few cities have done well, and in a city built on a mantra of pro-growth, pro-development, no-holds-barred boosterism, it is a particularly daunting task.

If you find Atlanta’s experience with gentrification interesting, plan to attend the ASA’s annual meeting session, Gentrification in the South, being planned by the Regional Spotlight Committee. This session will examine how Atlanta and other southern cities are gentrifying.