Recently, a committee of residents of the affluent neighborhood of Buckhead, in northern Atlanta, proposed to separate from the rest of the city and create a new municipality because it opposes a new plan that foresees to modify the planning regulations to allow the construction of new houses in low cost, with the aim of reducing the severe housing crisis in the city. It is an unprecedented initiative, but it is also the symptom of a conflict that has existed for some time in many American cities, where attempts by municipal administrations to authorize the construction of new housing are very often met with opposition from residents.
The scarcity of affordable housing is a huge problem across the country, and in cities like Atlanta in particular it is closely linked to the constraints that were imposed over the past century to keep communities of white people separate from those of black people. of other ethnic groups. According to various critics, the main reason for the hostility towards the new urban projects of Buckhead, a predominantly white and conservative neighborhood, is still the desire to keep people living in the most disadvantaged conditions out of the neighborhood.
Atlanta is located in Georgia and has about 500,000 inhabitants. According to local government estimates, its population will increase significantly over the next few years, reaching 1.2 million residents in 2050. To meet these needs, the city’s Urban Planning Department has proposed a plan to convert some neighborhoods. of the city currently intended for the construction of single-family houses in spaces where multi-family housing and condominiums can be built. The plan, which has yet to be approved, also proposes to change the urban planning rules of the areas located within half a mile of the main public transport stations, in order to allow the construction of small residential buildings suitable for an average of four units. family members, up to a maximum of 12, in specific circumstances.
Currently, much of the Buckhead neighborhood is dedicated to the construction of single-family homes only.
According to the Buckhead City Committee, the committee of Buckhead residents who would like to separate from Atlanta and establish a new city, the proposed changes would, however, have devastating consequences on certain neighborhoods. Bloombergfor example, according to the committee, they would increase population density, favor deforestation and aggravate the traffic problem, with the sole result of “enriching the builders at the expense of Buckhead’s livability.” Another very common concern is that if poorer people moved into the area, the neighborhood would become less residential and the homes of current residents would eventually lose value.
For this, the committee is trying to have the separation from the rest of the city voted in 2022.
Cartels calling for the proposed separation of Buckhead from Atlanta to be put to a vote in 2022 (Jenni Girtman / AP Images for Buckhead City Committee)
In the United States, there are building rules and regulations that prevent the construction of multi-family housing or public housing that has historically been used as a tool for exclusion. This mechanism is known in English as “exclusionary zoning” and essentially establishes for the territory of each city which type of residential building can be built in each area: in most cases it provides that most of the plots of land can be destined to house single-family houses, often no higher than two floors, with a minimum number of parking spaces or a certain area of land around them, and effectively prevents the construction of condominiums or smaller and cheaper houses.
Originally, the mechanism served above all to prevent black people, who tend to be poorer and more disadvantaged, from living in areas inhabited by white people, more or less wealthy. However, it still has major consequences today, because houses in the most desirable neighborhoods continue to be inhabited only by those who can afford them, mostly whites, and other communities continue to remain out of it in a sense.
To give a concrete example, according to a recent analysis by the Department of Urban Planning, in Atlanta there are about 110,000 single homes and 76,000 apartment complexes with 50 or more units. On the other hand, the residences intended for a few families are far fewer (according to these data in 2019 there were 15 thousand) and part of the urban plan would provide for the creation of 11,500 in the next few years: a achievable goal, but which would require changes to the building rules. which concern lots destined to house single-family houses only, that is about 60 per cent of the residential areas of the city.
Until the first half of the twentieth century, Atlanta was essentially divided into residential areas populated by white people and neighborhoods inhabited by people of color. Even when the Supreme Court banned such explicit segregation in 1954, there continued to be such divisions through other mechanisms, and in recent years in the metropolitan area around the city, new districts and municipalities have formed which have further created boundaries between the various communities that inhabit them, with controversial effects.
According to an analysis of the site FiveThirtyEight, in 2015 Atlanta was one of the US cities with the most diverse population, but it was also the second most segregated, after Chicago.
Among the neighborhoods of Atlanta still inhabited for the most part by white people is precisely Buckhead, which became part of Atlanta in 1952 and is one of its richest areas, as well as the most conservative. As the Buckhead City Committee pointed out, in the last few decades, however, the levels of crime in the neighborhood – robberies, assaults and thefts – have increased more than in the rest of the city, and this has made it lose its status as a wealthy neighborhood, so to speak. , calm and sure, which according to the committee should also equip itself with a new police force, to compensate for what is considered the lack of city police forces.
On the one hand, there are those who see the proposal to separate from Atlanta as an attempt to regain the neighborhood’s reputation; on the other, there are those who argue that it is again based on the exclusion of communities other than the richest and most conservative ones.
Buckhead City Committee chairman Sam Lenaeus told a Bloomberg that the question “is not to keep someone out or to limit who lives” in certain areas, but “to preserve the quality of life that the people who bought those lands want”.
According to Coleman Allums, expert in Urban Geography at the University of Georgia, the central question of the dispute concerns who should have control over a certain area, that is to say also who can set the price of rents or who should live in certain areas of the city. In a way, the separation would also mean making Buckhead continue to be too expensive for people who can’t afford to buy us a house, such as immigrants.
– Read also: The history of baseball leagues for black players
The proposals from the Atlanta City Planning Department are not particularly drastic, and are in line with similar plans approved in recent years in various US states or cities, including Oregon or Minneapolis, which have actually authorized even larger changes. According to Tim Keane, the head of urban planning of the city, the measures foreseen in Atlanta are indeed deliberately soft to ensure that individual neighborhoods retain their identity and manage to limit gentrification, that is to say the phenomenon by which a neighborhood poor becomes fashionable, rich new inhabitants arrive, and those who were there before leave because they can no longer afford the cost of rents and services.
The proposed changes, however, would not even apply to Buckhead, a neighborhood where housing prices are quite high. According to the scholars always cited by Bloomberg, however, they frighten residents, who would fear even broader measures in the future.
Buckhead’s proposal to secede was also discussed during the election campaign of the two mayoral candidates who will compete in the ballot on November 30th.
Felicia Moore, the current city council president, told ad Axios that if elected she will try to persuade Buckhead residents to stay with Atlanta, saying that even the people who support the separation want the same thing as the rest of the inhabitants, namely “to have the services they pay for and to feel safe in the lives of all the people. days”. Andre Dickens, himself a second-term city council member, said that as mayor he would be committed to expanding policies aimed at having more housing without distorting the characteristics of individual neighborhoods, and added that he is already talking to various civic groups. to try to stop the movement.