By Maria Saporta
Its time to get out of the lawsuit business. So proclaimed several board members of the Atlanta Housing authority at a specially-called virtual meeting on Feb. 16 when the board approved a settlement agreement with the Integral Group and its development partners over 88 acres of land next to four mixed-income projects.
After years and years of protracted lawsuits and countersuits between Atlanta Housing and Integral, a proposed settlement was announced by Mayor Andre Dickens on Feb. 3, exactly one month after his inauguration.
Clearly, it felt like a new day for the city and Atlanta Housing. At long last, the authority would be able to direct its focus on developing affordable housing throughout the city rather than be saddled with the distractions of endless lawsuits.
AHA board member Kirk Rich (far left) argues against the Integral settlement at AHA board meeting back in February 2020. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)
During the AHA board meeting, several members congratulated Dickens for being able to broker a settlement between the different parties.
Theres a new settlement proposal put forward by the new mayor of the city of Atlanta, Dr. Chris Edwards, the AH board chair said in his opening comments at the meeting. And I believe I speak for all of us when we say we want to be on board, supporting the mayor. As Ive said often., theres only one mayor at a time, and we should support his leadership. Because were all human all of us are not going to agree on all that goes into a decision. I believe that we all do agree that we want to get this behind us.
Fellow board member Robert Highsmith, an attorney, admitted that he would have lost a bet if someone had said a settlement agreement would be voted on within the first six weeks of Mayor Dickens term.
I want to thank you, Mayor. I might have lost that bet. Mr. Chairman, if you had told me that six weeks into the new administration, we would have a viable settlement of this litigation thats taken up so much of all of our time, said Highsmith, adding the agreement still needs to be approved by the courts and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But we have a final executable document here that I think is going to get us there.
HUD celebrates 50th anniversary in Atlanta on Nov.4, 2015 at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Left to right: Renee Glover, Egbert Perry, Shirley Franklin and Georgia Tech professor Danny Boston. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed welcomes then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro to Atlanta. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)
Echoing those statements was Kirk Rich, a commercial real estate executive who serves as vice-chair of Atlanta Housings board.
After thanking the various parties who worked on the settlement agreement, Rich also singled out Mayor Dickens.
To your point Robert the courage and leadership as a new mayor to do this so rapidly will allow us to get back to business that we were appointed to do and that we as a city of Atlanta. Im very happy to be here tonight and be able to put this to a vote so we can move on.
While they were applauding Dickens, a stubborn truth remains. Most of the current members of the Atlanta Housing board have been in charge during a period when the agency did little to develop affordable housing in the city limits.
In fact, the authoritys development efforts came to a virtual standstill after former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was able to push out former CEO Rene Glover in 2013. Several of the current board members were either appointed by Reed or are known to have had close ties to him.
Over the past eight-plus years, the authority has been sitting on more than 300 acres of undeveloped land while the city has been experiencing a dramatic decline in affordable housing.
Egbert Perry, founder and CEO of the Integral Group, in a conference room at his companys headquarters in 2017. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)
One of Mayor Dickens top priorities has been to increase the availability of affordable housing in the city. And the Atlanta Housing authority is viewed as the key vehicle to build affordable housing especially on the lower-end of the income spectrum.
So, it would make sense for Dickens to be able to name his own team to Atlanta Housings board.
Unfortunately, it appears that former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tied up most of the appointments before she left office.
The Atlanta Housing authority sent over the list of board appointments with the terms of the members. Two members are public housing residents who serve one-year terms. The others are all appointed by the mayor.
Chairman Edwards was given a retroactive five-year term. He had been serving as part of an expired term appointed by Bottoms, and his current term will expire on Sept. 2, 2024.
Bottoms appointed Rich to a five-year term expiring Nov. 4, 2024.
Bottoms also appointed Pat Dixon Jr. to serve until Sept. 21, 2025.
And Bottoms appointed Ten Traylor to a five-year term expiring June 1, 2026. By the way, Traylor abstained from voting for the settlement agreement without explaining why.
The seventh board member Highsmith is the only one whose term is expiring this year on Nov. 5. Highsmith was first appointed by Reed.
So, Dickens hands are tied when it comes to being able to set his own housing agenda through Atlanta Housing (AH).
That is unless AH board members do the right thing and submit their resignations to Mayor Dickens. They should give the mayor the freedom to accept their resignations or to keep them on board. At least they would be accountable to the current mayor and not to the two previous mayors.
As we proclaim its a new day for Atlanta Housing given the proposed settlement agreement with Integral, lets take it one step further. Let Dickens put his own team on the AHA board, and then it will really be a new day for affordable housing in Atlanta.
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