Monday, January 27, 2020

Mayor Bottom's Troubling Behavior Pattern

In response to flooding resulting from over development and neglect, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed decided that 27 homes in Peoplestown, a historically black neighborhood of in Atlanta needed to be demolished to make room for a Japanese themed park and pond.  As a result of persistent protests, rallies and resistance by community members, he decided that one resident, 93-year-old Ms. Mattie Jackson, could stay.  The city of Atlanta filed eminent domain lawsuits against the remaining residents who refused to leave in October 2016.  Resident's names were removed from their deeds, and though they continue to pay their mortgages for the past three years, they do not own their homes and can be evicted at any time. Of the 27 homes and families that originally occupied the block in the heart of Peoplestown, only four homes and four families remain. 

In the midst of a three year court battle, emails surfaced that were written by a former City of Atlanta engineer, who was the project manager for the proposed park and pond, stating that the City didn’t have the necessary engineering to support the taking and demolition of an entire block of homes.  Those emails were written in 2013, BEFORE the first home was demolished.  The engineer, Kimberly Scott, testified in court, under oath, that the actions of the City were neither necessary nor justified and she testified before City Council and asked them to “correct [the] wrong.”
 (See the emails )    

After years of protest, online petitions, and media coverage current Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms agreed to meet with one of the families, Mr. Robert and Bertha Darden, to discuss their desire that the lawsuits be withdrawn and they be allowed to stay in the home they have lived in and raised their children and grandchildren in for over 30 years.  During that April 30 2019 meeting the Dardens shared with Mayor Bottoms the evidence that clearly showed that the City should have never sued them in the first place for their homes and provided her with alternative plans for the block developed by the engineering firm they hired to assist them in the litigation.  

The Dardens left the meeting, which a press release from the Mayor’s office described as “productive”, hopeful that a resolution was near.  Nine months passed and the Dardens heard nothing from the Mayor and the litigation continues.  In December 2019 the Dardens and Tanya Washington, with the support of the Housing Justice League, planned a rally on the steps of city hall and a sit-in in Mayor Bottoms’ office.  After 11 hours, senior officials, Rashad Taylor and Rev Eric Thomas reached out on behalf of the Mayor and expressed a desire and intention to bring the matter to an end before the Christmas holidays.  Residents left city hall and went home to their families with the expectation that the matter would be resolved before Christmas and certain that they would not carry the 7-year fight into the New Year. There was a sense of relief at the thought of lifting this burden. 

The effected residents asked if Deborah Scott with Georgia Stand-up and myself could negotiate on their behalf. We decided to go into negotiations with Mayor Bottom's administration with the assumption of trust despite a track record of poor communications, broken promises, and unanswered calls/emails. We met the day immediately following the sit-in. Reverend Eric Thomas and Rashad Taylor represented the Mayor's office. The meeting was friendly and lasted about an hour. We spent our time laying out terms that would end the campaign and present a win-win solution for the city and the remaining residents.

 It was clearly communicated that the family's terms were reasonable and the Mayor Bottoms was highly motivated to do right by the families. We left the meeting Tuesday December 17th with an agreement that a written road map to resolution would be completed by Friday December 20th.

Over the course of the week we continued to negotiate through email and text message. It started to become clear that the Mayor's team was moving very slowly. We began to hear something that many community organizations have been hearing in regards to promises from this administration, "We're working on it."
Highlighted txt is Tim Franzen

I began to fear the worst, that we had fallen into a trap. Certainly the Mayor wouldn't promise a positive solution to this problem just to get us to pause the campaign through the holidays? Of course this Mayor wouldn't intentionally enter into bad faith negotiations? 

I began to ask if there was anything the families were asking for that the Mayor took issue with. Was the slow down in progress due to ifs or hows? It was made clear that the Mayor had no real issues with any of the families requests and they simply needed more time to work out details.

So we compromised and asked Rashad Taylor and Rev Thomas what deadline would work best and Rev Thomas let us know that Dec 31st would work, so we agreed on a second deadline even though doubts were beginning to arise. 

Highlighted txt is Tim Franzen
 On January 2nd Rev Thomas said they need more time after which we never heard from either Rashad or Rev Thomas, the Mayor and her team has totally ghosted the families since. I can't tell you how difficult it was to watch the joy and hope build as families fighting for their homes began to believe that the Mayor really wanted to work out a solution that all parties could live with only to have the rug pulled out from under them yet again. 

As one of the negotiators entrusted  by the families I felt embarrassed to admit that I believed Mayor Bottom's team was acting in good faith, I encouraged the families and the organizations advocating for them to put the campaign on pause only to have them ignore community after the holidays passed. In my mind it begs the question, is there any good faith in Mayor Bottom's administration?

In the aftermath of this disappointing chapter of this 7 year fight Tanya Washington expressed her pain and confusion, "I simply can't understand how a black, female Mayor who pledged to support the community who voted her into office can treat people this way.  She has seen the evidence that this was never necessary and she refuses to right the wrong the City committed.  My family and I are so tired of this fight.  If Mayor Reed had the power to decide Ms. Mattie could stay in her home why can't you use your power to allow us to stay in ours?"      Mrs. Darden, a senior who has lived in home in Peoplestown for 30+ years is heartbroken. "How long does it take to do the right thing? she asked Mayor Bottoms at a recent Invest Atlanta meeting. "All of this could have been avoided.  Since April of 2019, you gave me and my family hope and then in December 2019 we still had hope, and now we have no hope.  You have shown us that we cannot put our trust in what you say.  The faith we had in you is gone because you do not keep your word and because you will not do the right thing by us."

The truth is we don't know where things stand with the Mayor and the Peoplestown eminent domain fight because the community has been shunned by her office yet again. Maybe she's to busy stumping for Joe Biden, maybe her schedule is to jammed hanging with celebrities instead of following through with commitments she's made to community. At this point we have learned we can't hold our breath waiting on this Mayor to do the right thing.

Outside Ebeneezer during King Holiday Events
So we will continue to show up wherever Mayor Bottoms is so we can tell the truth, so we can remind her of the commitments she's made to communities, and we can hold her accountable to them.  As former Senator Vincent said said, " Using eminent domain as a device to displace black people from their homes is shameful.  That's why I joined the Dardens and Tanya Washington on the King Holiday outside of Ebeneezer Baptist Church to protest Mayor Bottoms' ruthless gentrification policies; educate the public and encourage others to join our resistance."

Tim Franzen
Atlanta Economic Justice Program Director
American Friends Service Committee

Saturday, January 25, 2020

People of Atlanta Join January 25 Global Day of Action Against War with Iran

In over 150 cities—from Mobile, Alabama to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from Yerevan, Armenia to Kampala, Uganda—people around the world were in the streets on today, January 25 to send a clear message to the Trump administration against going to war with Iran. 

American Friends Service Committee along with local partners including Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, ANSWER Coalition, Atlanta Friends Meeting, Georgia Detention Watch, International Action Center, #OutNowCoalition, KSUnited, Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America, and the Housing Justice League released the following statement:

The Trump administration is rapidly escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Not only is each dollar invested in the military industrial complex a robbery from our under-resourced communities, this escalation could set off a domino effect that could mean annihilation for us all.
We are still living in the aftermath of the war in Iraq — which not only saw the deaths of almost a million Iraqis, 4,500 US troops, and set off an endless “War on Terror” — but also represented one of the largest transfers of wealth in Human history. We simply can’t afford not to act."
The march kicked off at Piedmont park and ended with a brief rally at the Georgia Tech Research Institute which has received millions of dollars in military contracts to research and improve the technologies of war such as drones. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Forest Cove Youth Leadership Program

Forest Cove is a 398-unit Section 8 apartment complex in southeast Atlanta. In early 2018, a group of tenants reached out to Housing Justice League for help organizing to achieve better living conditions. Since then, AFSC and HJL have worked with Forest Cove tenants to form a tenant association, and hold management accountable to its responsibility to provide safe and comfortable housing. The tenant association was active for almost a year, before frustration due to a lack of progress and the relocation of one of its most vocal leaders caused its activity to cease. 

Program interns and AFSC staff out on a tour of Old Fourth Ward
It was decided in the spring of 2019 to begin a program to engage young people who live in or are connected to Forest Cove. The Forest Cove Youth Leadership Program would be the first step in an effort to build a source of youth pressure and power that could revive and support the tenant association. Its curriculum was designed to educate participants about issues related to housing, land and community, help participants build leadership skills, and give participants a chance to bring a piece of what they learned back to the neighborhood. The program’s first cohort ran from June 25, 2019 to September 19, 2019. 

Four paid, part-time interns were hired to participate in the program. Seven individuals submitted paper applications, and after one round of in-person interviews, the final four cohort members were chosen: two young men and two young women, ages 17, 21, 23 and 24. The interns were chosen based on their passion for seeing the neighborhood change for the better prior experience with organizing was not required. Our goal was to seek out and train new leaders with no or minimal background in activism. Three interns were unable to finish the program, and the cohort ended with one intern and one volunteer. 

During the third week of the program, the interns attended the AFSC South Region Youth Summit in Washington, D.C. The summit was an opportunity for the interns to meet other youth program participants from around the South Region, and participate in a training about how to create change in their communities while resisting racism, colonialism and imperialism. The summit also included a chance for the interns to speak with their elected representatives in Congress about an issue that was important to them. 

Interns presenting in the office of D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton
For their capitol visit, the Atlanta interns teamed up with a youth participant from D.C. and came up with a joint presentation that called attention to issues of policing and criminal justice within their communities. The group met with policy advisors for Georgia Senator David Perdue, and for D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. 

The second half of the curriculum was dedicated to planning a culminating project – an event that would be led by the interns, and that would allow them to engage their neighbors around a theme or issue of their choice. The culminating project took place on Saturday, September 14, 2019. It was named “Igniting Hope,” and it was planned as an opportunity for Forest Cove tenants to create a shared vision for the neighborhood they want to live in. We were hopeful that this event could build momentum in favor of a revived tenant association, and so far, our efforts have been fruitful. A few of the adults who attended have expressed a willingness and eagerness to continue meeting and remain involved. 

The second cohort of the Forest Cove Youth Leadership Program will be launched in the spring of 2020. For the next cohort and those that follow, the program curriculum will be re-worked to further connect the interns to the housing justice campaigns that the Atlanta Economic Justice Program is involved with. Two youth participants who were involved this summer have chosen to continue working as volunteers to help continue the process of engaging and mobilizing Forest Cove tenants. During the fall of 2019, we will organize events to educate Forest Cove neighbors, provide fun activities for the neighborhood children, and continue to build momentum for the tenant association. 

The following reflection was written by Dimoniqua Smith, one of the program’s interns: 

“What can I do? Nothing. Before AFSC, the problems of my life, of this world, were just problems. They didn’t have solutions. I didn’t even think that they could have solutions. The one main thing I remember from the Youth Summit was to resist. Don’t ever just accept things as they are, and question everything. Don’t just accept the world as it is if it’s not the best. Remember that if you can’t use anything else, you could use your voice to get your community and the world to listen. 
         AFSC has taught me so many important things. It’s hard to pick and choose which ones are the most important. I believe the second most important one is to spread what you learned back into the world. Or at least plant the seed people’s minds. And to remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. It took Europeans centuries to push their beliefs onto the world. I don’t want to ramble so I’m going to end this. Fate brought AFSC to me and I learned so much from them. From Ms. Foluke, Mrs. Nia, and the rest of ASFC’s amazing organization.”  
-- Dimoniqua Smith, 17

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Labor & Community Unite to Redlight the Gulch on MLK's Birthday

Today on the steps of Atlanta's city hall organized labor joined community groups on the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr to appeal to the Mayor and other city leaders who often invoke the name of Dr King but pursue policies and projects(Like the Gulch project) that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor in Atlanta.

Today was significant because the Redlight the Gulch Coalition, which is made up of several community groups, was joined by a number of labor unions including International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 77, Laborers International Union of America, Local 515, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, Local 33

United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers, Local 136, Unite Here, and Teamsters local 728.

Our Communities can no longer survive this approach to development that sees our city leaders cutting billion dollar welfare checks to the super rich to develop luxury developments with little to no affordable housing, community benefits, and workforce agreements. The money we are spending on the Gulch isn't monopoly money, it's real, which means public funds are being diverted from other public needs in order to help billionaire Slum lords from LA(CIM group) to build a city within a city. CIM will own the sidewalks and the streets. Where is that money coming from? A very large chunk(over 500 million) will come from a Tax Allocation District(TAD) that would otherwise go to our already struggling public schools in Atlanta. The cruel irony is that we are being forced to pay for our own gentrification through projects like the Gulch.

What adds insult to injury is the fact that our current Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms made a promise to the community when she was running for mayor. She committed to support legally binding community benefits agreements between developers and the communities they seek to profit off of whenever public funds were involved. It would appear that she was either lying, or that she very quickly changed her mind after winning the election.

Tomorrow at 9am at the Fulton County Superior Court in courtroom 9G the Redlight the Gulch coalition goes back to court. Members of the Coalition have intervened on the bond validation process in order to get in the way of this 2 billion dollar welfare check set to help fund the luxury development. The legal fight is likely to go to appeal and the Redlight the Gulch coalition is raising money through crowdsourcing to cover the hefty legal costs.

The current City of Atlanta’s Gulch proposals DO NOT include:
Community benefits agreements
Community workforce agreements
Real affordable housing
Anti-displacement policies
Certified apprenticeship program
Community planning process

Friday, November 2, 2018

Redlight The Gulch Coalition Weighs in on Norfolk Southern Ultimatum

November 2, 2018

Norfolk Southern’s CEO says that unless his company can make a big profit on its land in the Gulch, it will not consolidate staff from Norfolk, VA to Atlanta.

There is no justification for throwing a Gulch public subsidy — variously put at $1.9 billion and $1.44 billion — at an 850-job move.

The typical incentive from the City for that number of jobs is $850,000 to $2.5 million. That’s Million with an M, not Billion with a B. Some companies do not choose to extract any incentives when moving to the city.

The public cost of the Gulch scheme is on the order of one thousand times the incentive justified for the Norfolk Southern jobs.

By contrast, Blackrock announced last week that they are creating 1,000 new jobs in the city. They did not require billions in subsidy. Like Atlanta residents, they were also unfazed by the Gulch. Like all the other companies moving to and expanding in Atlanta over this decade, Blackrock is coming for our talent, our universities, our airport and our standard of living.

We also remind residents that Norfolk Southern did Atlanta no favors when they sold their stretch of the future Beltline to a developer for $25m, which forced the city to $65m — vastly more than if Norfolk had waited and sold it to the city directly.

We call upon Council Members to resist absurd last-minute arguments and bullying. The Gulch scheme would squander future revenues desperately needed to run our city and schools, and to support housing affordability.

Redlight the Gulch on November 5!