Atlanta needs a vision to address our growing inequality
By Atticus LeBlanc, PadSplit Founder and Chair of ULI Atlanta’s UrbanPlan Committee
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my 16 years as an entrepreneur or 19 in land-use, it’s that a clear vision is absolutely required to build a successful company, or development project. Anyone who has ever renovated a home or built a business knows the seemingly endless choices to be made, alongside a multitude of complicating factors completely beyond your control. It is a stressful endeavor, and is impossible to achieve a successful outcome without a clear understanding of what you’re actually trying to do in the first place.
As we consider the future of Atlanta, I urge all mayoral candidates as well as citizens, elected officials, and business leaders to align around a common vision that will ultimately guide us to make the incredibly difficult decisions that lay before us today.
I believe the Atlanta City Design project and “One Atlanta” plans have done a good job of getting us started around ideals of opportunity, equity and environmental stewardship, but we need to align on even more basic questions to develop a concise vision that cuts like a razor to help resolve potential conflicts. Namely:
- Do we believe the people who serve our community should have an opportunity to live here?
- Do we think our city should be more inclusive in the future than it has been in the past?
- Do we want to create a vibrant economy that supports entrepreneurship and business growth?
- Do we believe in equal access to opportunity and a “City for All”?
My own vision is that Atlanta should be a vibrant, verdant, and equitable center for innovation and opportunity, where people are inspired and empowered to craft a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities.
Some NPU leaders may suggest a vision where Atlanta should be a collection of unique neighborhoods with distinct sets of values dependent on location, attributes, and life circumstances.
These two visions are very different from each other, and we should expect our current and future elected leaders to clearly articulate their vision for the city, and to implement policy and budget decisions that align with the vision that got them elected.
Whatever vision we align around, effective policy and strategy should also reconcile that vision with existing data.
According to the most recent market data, the median home price in Atlanta has risen to $383,000 and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,527, with both climbing rapidly over the last 10 years. In order to qualify for these housing options, an Atlanta household needs to earn $127,000 and $55,000 respectively. Unfortunately, the median household income in Atlanta is only $59,000, and more than 20% of Atlantans are described as “living in poverty.” Atlanta is ranked as the worst city in the country for income inequality.
By any objective measure, the bulk of workers serving Atlanta’s neighborhoods do not have an opportunity to live in them. But I also don’t believe that accommodating this population, or the dramatic increase in expected population requires the destruction of our tree canopy.
In fact, common-sense densification strategies have been employed in Atlanta and other cities for centuries and haven’t compromised tree cover. Many strategies can increase housing supply and lower costs without significant public subsidy. Examples abound in walkable neighborhoods with a mix of housing types in Ansley Park, Inman Park, and Virginia Highlands. Large historic detached homes sit next to attractive multi-family buildings without dwarfing size and scale, and restaurants and shops remain within walking or biking distance.
Today, even as the market demands more of these walkable neighborhoods, and over 100 years after these desirable neighborhoods were developed, we’ve effectively prevented their replication. It’s currently allowable in R1 – R4 zones (more than half of the city) to build a 5,000 sf home for 1 family, but it’s illegal to build a 2,000 sf duplex. That type of regulation is exclusionary, it doesn’t protect trees or property values, and it doesn’t promote a walkable or transit-friendly community. Moreover, we cannot ignore that these regulations, rooted in a racially discriminatory history that led to income inequality, continue to discriminate based on income, and therefore on race as well.
Our city, and our country are changing, and have been changing for a long time. Since 1950, home sizes have nearly tripled, but family sizes have declined. According to national research from AARP, 1 and 2 person households make up more than 73% of the population, yet studio and 1 bedroom units comprise only 12.5% of the existing housing stock. The largest demographic group are singles living alone, which at 28% of the population, make up a greater share than all nuclear and single-parent families combined. In Atlanta though, we’ve essentially excluded single adults from neighborhoods by preventing anything but non-detached one-family homes, and we further restrict these homes from being shared among unrelated adults.
The result of outdated policies and mismatched housing stock is that we’ve forced our lower income workers to move further from employment centers, particularly for anyone who teaches in our schools, patrols our streets, cooks or serves our food, secures our airport, or drives us or our deliveries around town. These folks should be our neighbors. They deserve to be included in our vision.
Ignoring them comes at a steep price. Traffic? 92% of Buckhead’s workers live outside of Buckhead. Crime? Atlanta can’t hire enough officers and fewer than 14% live in the city. Education? Just ask APS how difficult it is to recruit and retain teachers with the long commute times.
Despite these challenges, I wholeheartedly believe that we can update zoning to provide more housing options while creating economic opportunities that address inequality in our city. We may not be able to do everything at once, and we will certainly have vigorous debate. I just hope we can agree on a unifying vision, and be willing to subject our positions to the facts. I would humbly ask anyone reading this to consider their own vision for their city, based on the values they hold dear, and to articulate that vision clearly. We should be able to draw a line in the sand, representing our common values, and to hold our neighbors and elected leaders to account when necessary. As our city seeks new leadership, we will need to confront those policies which detract from our vision, as politically perilous as that may be, and to pursue new ones that align with Atlanta’s future.
If we can do these things, I have no doubt that the Atlanta we create will be better – more vibrant, more verdant, and more equitable – than the one we have today.
Atticus LeBlanc is the CEO and founder of PadSplit, an Atlanta based affordable housing marketplace. He is a member of the Urban Land Institute and is the current Chair of ULI Atlanta’s UrbanPlan Committee. UrbanPlan is a realistic, engaging exercise in which participants—high school students, university students, or public officials—learn the fundamental forces that affect development in our communities. This article was written with support from:
Atlanta Land Trust
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Ernest Brown – YIMBY Atlanta
Joel Dixon – Urban Oasis Development
Eric Kronberg – Kronberg Urbanist & Architects
Bruce Gunter – Civitas Housing Group
Kathryn Petralia – Kabbage
Andrew McConnell – Rented.com
Will Johnston, MicroLife Institute