We need help on building wealth, we really do. And that’s something that we should have had a long time ago.
Atlanta’s current economic policies have not supported opportunities for all people to thrive. Amid public health crises and economic and racial injustice, state and local policy tools and budgetary decisions have consistently failed Black Atlantans who bear the brunt of the racial wealth divide. An enduring legacy of racial terror, enslavement, Jim Crow and more continues to permeate Atlanta’s policy agenda. Moreover, the calls to eliminate the considerations of the government and private sector’s role in terrorizing Black and Brown communities and accelerating the racial wealth divide continue to swell. Policymakers must take up a renewed and bold commitment to counteract these efforts by working alongside Black residents to craft data-informed solutions that seek to redress past harms and build Black wealth.
Now is the time to build a beloved economy free from structural racism that promotes opportunities to build Black wealth – an economy that creates the beloved community from which all Atlantans benefit. Policy solutions must consider the role of the structural determinants of Black wealth in influencing outcomes. To that end, we urge local policymakers to focus on the following policy recommendations to create systemic changes that allow for everyone to benefit from closing Atlanta’s racial wealth divide.
- Support local efforts to launch a baby bonds program. A baby bonds program may have the single largest effect on the racial wealth divide.131 Baby bonds are universal, publicly funded child trust accounts that provide significant sums (up to $50,000) for children born into households with the lowest wealth. When recipients reach adulthood, they can use the funds for wealth-building activities such as purchasing a home or starting a small business. A baby bond – paired with a guaranteed income – can stabilize incomes and accelerate wealth building. Baby bonds are designed to be publicly funded, ideally by the federal government. However, the City of Atlanta can support the Georgia Resilience and Opportunity (GRO) Fund’s local effort to launch a pilot program which can inform the development of a full City of Atlanta-funded baby bonds program.
- Establish a publicly-funded guaranteed income program. Unrestricted cash helps families transition from poverty to asset creation. Guaranteed income participants spend the money on basic needs and remain attached to the labor force when they are able to do so. Atlanta is home to one of the largest privately-funded guaranteed income programs in the South managed by GRO Fund, offering $850 to Black women for 24 months to enable debt paydown, investing in caregiving, and build a financial cushion for their families. The City should codify guaranteed income, scale the programs, and invest public dollars to make the programs permanent.
- Establish community accountability for strict enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The CRA encourages banks to help meet the credit needs of their local communities, but there is little insight into the enforcement of the CRA at the local level. The City of Atlanta should lead the creation of an oversight board comprised of residents from chronically disinvested neighborhoods. The board can work in close collaboration with the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and its regional community outreach officials to ensure the benefits of CRA are materializing in Black communities equitably.
- Provide free access to checking accounts at trusted banks. Atlanta operates the Bank On Atlanta program which is designed to connect Atlantans to low-cost banking options.132 However, there is no guarantee that the banking options are free of charge for participants. The City can bolster the program and improve banking outcomes by working with bank partners to establish a pathway to checking and high yield savings accounts for those living in neighborhoods with the highest rates of unbanked and underbanked residents.
- Establish a city-led initiative to address predatory lending. Predatory lending is a significant issue for Atlantans. The City should establish a strike force to investigate, respond to, and hold accountable predatory financial services in the city’s Black neighborhoods. City resources should be used to evaluate and address the concentration of predatory actors like expensive check-cashing and title loan shops in majority Black neighborhoods.
- Eliminate the use of wealth-based punishment through fines, fees, and cash bail. Eliminate court fines and fees, as they are inequitable and overly punitive to Black households. Atlanta officials should evaluate the use of fines and fees to develop permanent reform proposals that can replace them with adequate revenue generating measures (i.e. scaling back tax incentives to corporations). The same should hold true for the use of cash bail. Although Atlanta sought to end the use of cash bail in 2018 for those incarcerated at the Atlanta City Jail, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law in 2023 that rolled back that progress across the state.133
- Increase transparency in procurement outcomes for Black-owned businesses in the City. Atlanta contracts hundreds of millions of dollars a year and a portion of those funds are earmarked for minority business enterprises (MBEs). However, very little public information is available to assess the outcomes of Black-owned businesses in the City’s procurement process. Atlanta officials should implement innovative race-conscious performance reports to create transparency into the City’s procurement practices and policies. Atlanta officials should also leverage data and investments to strengthen the capacity of Black-owned businesses and business-serving organizations to remove barriers to procurement opportunities within the City.
- Strengthen affordable commercial space opportunities in the City. Significant market pressures have impacted affordability for legacy businesses that serve as anchors for the City’s historically Black commercial and cultural corridors. Creating and protecting commercial affordability is a group project. The City of Atlanta should target city-owned properties and abandoned or underutilized infrastructure to create affordable commercial space. The city should also use city-owned properties to develop shared ownership models, which can be leveraged toward the future ownership of the buildings and build collective wealth among Black businesses that occupy the space.
- Invest in employee ownership. Workers at employee-owned companies gain access to employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) that enable families to significantly increase their assets, shrinking—though not eliminating—racial wealth disparities,134 suggesting employee ownership can build Black wealth.135 The city should invest in technical assistance to educate existing businesses on the benefits of employee ownership as well as assist with capital and other tools to help them make the transition. Businesses where Black employees account for more than half of the payroll should be prioritized.
- Launch an Atlanta delegation and campaign committed to repealing state preemption. Georgia began preempting the City of Atlanta from key worker protections in 2004 and has since held the record for some of the strictest preemption laws in the country.136 Lawmakers began with banning municipalities from requiring minimum wages in the private sector, along with bans on paid family leave, fair scheduling, rent control, and more.137 Atlanta officials should establish a delegation and campaign focused on repealing state preemption laws.
I would like to see models of community-driven development, and that would be a way to generate wealth also.
- Use public dollars to hold companies accountable for the creation of asset-building jobs. For the most part, the millions of dollars granted by Atlanta in business tax breaks go unaudited, and very little data is publicly available to assess the community benefits of those breaks. Due to Atlanta’s lack of transparency when it comes to evaluating major subsidy programs, it is unclear how many of the jobs created are paying a meaningful living wage and are permanently created and maintained in Atlanta’s majority Black neighborhoods. Atlanta officials should evaluate local job creation proposals using job quality and racial equity impact assessments. These assessments ensure that careful consideration is given to the quality of jobs being added to a community. It also allows policymakers to address chronic creation of bad jobs in Black neighborhoods.
- Prioritize inclusionary zoning regulations with a racial equity lens. Current zoning laws and land use policies are the legacy of prejudiced actors who sought to maintain racial segregation within the city. The creation of single-family homes in affluent white neighborhoods and multifamily homes in predominately Black neighborhoods has eroded housing opportunities for Black Atlantans. Atlanta officials should employ a racial equity lens when addressing zoning laws for the city, particularly for new developments in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.
- Invest in community land trusts. The innovation of community land trusts (CLTs) offers a viable model for affordable housing in Atlanta, as mortgage rates reach record highs and the barriers to purchasing and maintaining a home become increasingly difficult to overcome. CLTs are nonprofit organizations that lease land to residents in low-income neighborhoods. The CLT owns the land on which the housing is located and residents, who become members of the CLT, can purchase units or homes from the land trust. The separation of the housing structure from the land allows the CLT to keep rates permanently affordable.
- Commit to more deeply affordable housing goals. The City of Atlanta currently defines affordable housing using the national area median income (AMI). The AMI is an insufficient metric for which to compare affordability in the city. In ten years, Atlanta’s AMI increased from $66,300 in 2013 to $103,500 in 2023– a 56 percent increase.138 In contrast, the Black median household income in the City of Atlanta only sits at $38,854 – about $65,000 less than the AMI.139 The stark contrast demonstrates how the use of AMI is an inaccurate reflection of the household income for a significant proportion of the city. Atlanta officials should support more deeply affordable housing units and establish a minimum goal of deeply affordable units attached to all new housing developments that take into account the need using timely data disaggregated by race and ethnicity.
- Expand housing affordability strategies to include a complementary approach to promote economic mobility. As housing prices have ballooned over the past few years, wages have been left relatively stagnant. A coordinated economic mobility strategy is critical to help Atlanta’s Black residents that have been locked into low-paying jobs that ultimately make them vulnerable to displacement.
- Commit to opportunities for Black-owned businesses in infrastructure spending. As the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s federal dollars continue to be distributed in Atlanta, much of the work will be contracted out to small, medium-sized, and large businesses. This will be an important opportunity for leaders to follow through on their promises by formalizing and building relationships with the Black businesses that create wealth for these communities.140 However, equity isn’t systematically built into the infrastructure bill; The City of Atlanta will need to develop explicit strategies to drive capital from the legislation to Black-owned firms.
- Codify a commitment to reparations. The City of Atlanta should establish, through local ordinance, a reparations committee to report on the financial cost of enslavement, property theft, discrimination, and segregation among Atlanta’s Black families. While local reparations efforts are encouraged, no municipality can advance a robust reparations agenda without full investment from the federal government.141 However, the City can make a down payment. The goal of the committee should be to determine how the City of Atlanta should pay for the generational wealth losses created by intentional public policies and private actions since the City’s founding. For example, officials can look to Evanston, Illinois, which provides a restorative housing program as a form of reparations to Black families in $25,000 increments funded by a three percent tax on legal recreational marijuana sales.142
- Establish the Office of Community Wealth Building. The City of Atlanta should establish a comprehensive data-centered, solutions-based office that provides city resources and services to ensure wealth-building opportunities for Atlanta residents. This go-to resource will serve as the one-stop shop for information and technical assistance for individuals and organizations working to tackle the racial wealth divide with a priority focus on scaling small businesses, employee ownership, worker cooperatives, and shared ownership of land. The office will also promote building household wealth by connecting individuals to community partners that assist residents with navigating complicated tax circumstances, avoiding predatory debt products, and more. Additionally, the office could convene residents and development stakeholders to coordinate city-level community benefit agreements (CBA). Lastly, the office can convene stakeholders to research and pilot innovative wealth building policies.