By Cameron McWhirter | Photographs by Dustin Chambers for The Wall Street Journal

ATLANTA—Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently delivered an odd message for a leader of a city whose name has become synonymous with growth.

“I told them, ‘If you live on the Westside of Atlanta, do not sell your property right now,’ ” she said in an interview.

atlanta housing market

Ms. Bottoms’s advice was aimed at working-class homeowners in a predominantly African-American area that she said is gentrifying so quickly people are getting shortchanged for their property. Atlanta, the economic capital of the Deep South, has promoted growth for decades and now finds itself trying to figure out how to manage neighborhoods quickly morphing from poor and working-class to redeveloped and wealthier.

“The good news is that we have all this development,” said Ms. Bottoms, who took office in January. “The flip side of that is people are getting pushed out.”

Atlanta is economically booming and facing a worker shortage. Ensuring that older people stay in their homes and that schoolteachers, police officers and firefighters can afford to live in the city is “an ongoing challenge,” the mayor said.

betline atlanta gentrification

The BeltLine, Atlanta’s trail project, follows rail corridors in a 22-mile loop around the city.

The gentrification debate in Atlanta has been focused to a large extent on the BeltLine, Atlanta’s trail project that follows rail corridors in a 22-mile loop around the city. In 2012, the first portion of the Eastside Trail opened, spawning new condos and apartment buildings, restaurants and stores. Last fall after three years of construction, a section of the trail opened on the Westside.

The BeltLine is funded by government agencies, nonprofit donors and a tax-allocation district, in which a portion of taxes collected in the area are designated for area improvements.

Many cities across the U.S. have developed or are considering similar path projects. New York’s 1.45-mile High Line has drawn new housing, businesses and tourists, as have bike and walking paths in New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia. Many of these cities are also wrestling with how to manage growth while maintaining affordable housing for service workers and others.

Atlanta announced Aug. 6 it had purchased another 1.8 miles of former railroad corridor on the Westside for $6.3 million, and now owns 80% of the land needed for the BeltLine project, which it aims to complete by 2030.

Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has been criticized in recent years for its lack of attention to affordable housing. Chief Executive Paul Morris was ousted in 2017 following such criticism. The next CEO, Brian McGowan, refocused efforts on affordable housing, but he left in mid-August.

Interim CEO Clyde Higgs said the BeltLine is “absolutely behind” on affordable housing. Mr. Higgs said he is in talks with nonprofits, corporations and others about fixing the problem.

Before he left his post, Mr. McGowan said the area around the BeltLine should have about 10,000 units of affordable housing by 2030. The area currently has about 2,600 such units. Affordable housing in the city is defined as rental units for people earning no more than 80% of the area’s median income, or no more than $1,047 a month for a single person.

In the two ZIP Codes that cover most of the Westside’s West End area, median prices for single-family homes and condos rose 54% and 110%, respectively, from the first quarter of 2014 to the first quarter of 2018, according to property-data provider Attom Data Solutions. Median home prices rose about 49% in metro Atlanta as a whole during the same period.

The BeltLine set a goal of creating 30,000 permanent jobs in the area around the BeltLine by 2030. So far, the organization estimates it has created 11,200.

Ms. Bottoms made preserving affordable housing a central platform of her campaign. She said she hoped to secure $1 billion in public and private funding to help preserve and build affordable housing. Since January, city agencies and related nonprofits have provided about $50 million in incentives and programs, she said.

The mayor plans to appoint a full-time staff person to focus on affordable housing.

Melanie Wade, the 30-year-old owner of Golda Kombucha, moved her operations last year from an Atlanta suburb to a building next to the Westside BeltLine, where she opened a tap room.

Ms. Wade, who is white, worries about local residents’ displacement and she has hired local people for her staff. But, she said the economic forces at work will mean that soon the neighborhood “is going to be like the Eastside,” where the BeltLine first opened six years ago.

Amichi Bertrand, a 32-year-old African-American, walked his pit bull near the BeltLine on a recent weekday. He said the neighborhood he knew is disappearing and he doesn’t trust the talk about creating sustained affordable housing.

“Whatever the vision is for the neighborhood, it ain’t mine,” he said.

atlanta betline trail.jpg
A cyclist on the Westside BeltLine Trail rides past one of a series of images of Martin Luther King Jr.

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com

Appeared in the September 1, 2018, print edition as ‘Atlanta Struggles With Growing Pains.’