Member Spotlight: Larry Keating, FAICP

HCD Member Spotlight: Larry Keating, FAICP

A Housing Hero in Atlanta

Interview with Larry Keating, FAICP as told to Deborah Myerson, AICP

Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

How the Fire Got Lit

My first brush with housing and community development was in the 1960s. I grew up working in Southwest DC, but I was stunned to learn that most of the folks who lived in SW—which was then under assault by urban renewal—had never been north of Constitution Ave. 

When I read about the lack of relocation of housing, I was struck by the meager amounts. City agencies had departed and the gaps and absence of other programs were hurting folks. It lit a fire in me that hasn’t gone out. I refocused my career and became tangled up in equity issues affecting low income and minority communities. 

Reciprocal Education with the Community Design Center

As an advocate of "university-in the community"/reciprocal education for faculty, students and community members,’ I co-founded the Community Design Center of Atlanta in 1977. We kept it supplying technical analyses to low-income primarily minority communities, non-profits, and occasionally religious organizations for over 30 years. 

Like most other Design Centers, we provided planning, architecture and analytical services. We also prepared independent policy analyses of issues of importance to low-income communities. We tried to help fight off gentrification, foster equitable preparation for the spectacle of the 1996 Olympics, resisted private sports stadiums (baseball, football and soccer), promoted more rental housing, fought expressways, tried to capture tax delinquent properties for rental housing, tried to fend off the single-family re-zoning that fuels gentrification, tried to expand rental and social housing and much more! Together with the CDCA Executive Director, students and a variable-sized staff, we did over 1,000 client-based projects. 

When necessary, we assisted with community organizing in neighborhoods that weren’t extensively organized. More frequently than we would have liked, we managed to help communities fend off the worst impacts of development projects supported by powerful interests that were eventually built. Fighting gentrification meant trying to help keep renters engaged and challenge the class-based assumptions of many homeowners, which we did sometimes successfully and sometimes not. There were some real victories—fostering the development of the Atlanta-Fulton County Land Bank Authority was one—but there were real losses, too. 

Hope Trumps Analysis 

As an educator, I taught Planning Theory and History and Housing Policy for over 30 years, supervised over 150 major papers (often in housing) and over 50 planning studios (most of which were in low-income usually minority communities). I also lectured in History and Theory of Planning for the AICP Exam Prep course for the Georgia Planning Association for many years. I pushed a social and racial justice perspective in Planning Theory, Housing, client-based studies and all of my other courses. 

I argued that the most hopeful moments in planning history were the times when we advocated for true comprehensiveness as we understood it at that time.  For example, in 1908 Benjamin Marsh advocated for a truly comprehensive, engaged planning that promoted cooperative housing, equity in multiple policy areas such as public utilities, municipally owned land and accompanied by responsible public financing—much more humane than the City Beautiful Movement more narrowly defined visions of planning. 

Planning had a broader view of substance and purposes again in the social legislation of the 1930’s and 1960s. When the 1968 Housing Act was implemented, twenty-five percent of new additions to the housing stock were social housing in 1971, demonstrating that the public sector can accomplish that level of production. Those moments embodied a social democratic vision of what planning could be. 

Hope always trumps analysis in my framework. It’s been great to see the attention that housing has received in the last few years. The newer millennial vision of politics is one of the most hopeful things to me. Many younger folks under 35 think democratic socialism is a useful way to think about government and expansion of humane concerns. 

Publishing on Planning History and Theory 

My academic scholarship sprang primarily from interests in planning history and housing. The most notable examples of published work are a Journal of Urban History piece on Techwood Homes, where I was the lead author. The article won the Catherine Bauer Wurster Award for Best Scholarly Article from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History in 2000-2001.

Another notable piece I wrote was Redeveloping Public Housing: Relearning Urban Renewal's Immutable Lessons (JAPA Journal article, 2000). This piece was on the AICP Exam Review reading list for a couple of years. 

My book on Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion (2000) was controversial enough that the Atlanta Journal Constitution never reviewed it. But it had good reviews in JAPA, the Atlanta History Society, and it appeared on political science and urban studies reading lists at the Atlanta University Center schools (Morehouse, Clark, Spelman, Morris Brown, Interdenominational Theological Seminary) for 5-10 years after publication. It still sells a few copies annually.

Resistance to Market-Based “Solutions”

Since I moved on from Georgia Tech, I helped rebuild the Atlanta Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America starting 10 years ago. I served on the Executive Committee until just after Bernie's [Sanders] 2016 presidential campaign when our membership expanded from 100 to 400+/- and brought much younger folks into the leadership (and superseded the graybeards). 

The future is fuzzy and fraught with difficulties. Looking at housing realistically, in order to pursue the fundamental goal of decent housing for all, we need to have some form of social democratic system of government.

We need substantially more public and social housing; we have to figure out how to accomplish that. I have a strong resistance to market-based “solutions.” It’s far too easy to torque those approaches into something that’s not beneficial to poor people. We are so far behind developing a truly equitable situation. We need 10 or 20 times public and social housing that we have now. 

Finding a Path to Useful Work

My advice to younger planners: keep your focus on benefiting low- moderate-income people. Be prepared to get rocked around as things change. But there are always ways to find a path to doing useful work. Keep the pressure on.