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Thought Leadership Sustainable Communities

Housing Policy and Making Cities Work for Everyone

Urban Land Institute

By Daphne Bond-Godfrey, Director, ULI Atlanta

During a ULI Atlanta event on housing policy, zoning, and land use, a panel of experts from across the public and private sector gave their perspectives on the current state of housing opportunity, inequality, and why now is the time to focus on finding innovations in our zoning and land use policies to better address the future of our city. First, we will have to wrestle with our cities exclusionary and discriminatory past before we can understand how to make better policy decisions for all residents across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Understanding the history of how our cities get built is inexplicably tied to zoning and land use practices. Zoning codes evolved in the early 1900’s to help city planners better understand housing typologies and what types of uses go on which parcels. Developers also used these codes in an attempt to segregate residential uses by race, including prohibiting home sales to people of color.

Zoning is a powerful tool that has been used to both divide and connect people and communities – and we’ve seen the harsh realities of discriminatory zoning policy with practices like redlining, urban renewal, and residential segregation. These housing disparities have only magnified why Atlanta remains the worst City in the country for economic mobility and inequality, according to a Bloomberg Analysis.

Terri Lee, the City of Atlanta’s Chief Housing Officer echoed that sentiment, “Our policies have to be revised to take away racial segregation and injustice that has occurred. We’ve seen how redlining has taken form in zoning. It’s critical as a City that we be more progressive to address the development of our affordable housing needs and quality housing in our City.”

It’s something that city planners and communities have grappled with for decades. Josh Humphries, the Director of the Office of Housing and Community Development shared part of his work ethos was to remember that the policy decisions we make today will have ramifications for people 50 years from now. “What role does land use play in the City’s ability to create affordable housing in the private market, including dedicated affordable housing and where it goes? When you think about that in the context of how housing determines your opportunity to education, access to fresh foods and jobs – it’s sobering”, he said.

The City is now undertaking a zoning code rewrite which is a multi-year effort utilizing the framework laid out in Atlanta City Design, the intent of which is built on Dr. Martin Luther King’s concept of the beloved community. This framework seems even more salient now than when it was published in 2017. Part of the intent of Atlanta City Design was to weave its aspirations into every part of Atlanta’s growth, from housing, transportation, and the built environment.

Egbert Perry, a housing icon in the Atlanta development world talked about the importance of design in communities on a downward trend. He impressed that certain regulatory issues like inclusionary zoning whereby the City allows a developer to pay an impact fee in exchange for building a market-rate product – i.e. without any affordable units – in desirable areas of the City (like the Atlanta BeltLine) only further segregate and concentrate poverty in other parts of the City. “When thinking about real estate, the idea of community development is more sustainable because of its focus on equitable, mixed income communities”, he said.

Vibrant communities include different housing choices available to individuals at all income levels. When you think about how that translates from policy to practice, one concept jumps out: missing middle housing. This typology describes homes developed in the mid-range of density between high rise and single-family. A product that is very scarce in Atlanta, it illustrates the unmet demand for different housing types, and gives opportunity to those that were historically excluded from the homebuying process.

In fact, one of the topics that inspired this ULI Atlanta program originally was the Minneapolis example of eliminating single family zoning. Proponents of this move say it will increase the production and diversity of housing types, increase density, and supply of housing. It helps to remove barriers individuals (primarily people of color) have faced around homeownership and residential segregation. It also challenges the housing norms by bringing about new types of housing innovation and offerings.

Here in Atlanta, the MicroLife Institute headed by Will Johnston is trying to do just that. “Land use regulation is an important puzzle piece for how we reweave the social aspect of communities. We have built homes that don’t encourage community and neighborhoods that don’t connect with each other.” How do we change that? His answer to this question is smaller, more communal living. The Institute is now working on a flagship project with the City of Clarkston that will help dispel the myth of how we use land and hopefully be a proof of concept to other real estate professionals that there is a market here for tiny living.

To summarize this very timely discussion and focus on finding innovations in our zoning and land use policies there were three big takeaways:

  • Address the exclusionary and discriminatory history of zoning. We have to make better policy for the future through Atlanta’s zoning rewrite to help realize the doctrine of the Beloved Community.
  • Understand the importance of flexibility. During a global pandemic, and economic recession, we are also in the midst of an awakening about systemic racism. COVID-19 showed the need for the City to pivot from long-term planning to short-term action. This shift had to be immediate because of the crisis Atlanta is facing. “Keeping people sheltered, particularly those who work in the hotel, retail, and service-based industries is paramount. In the long term, we need better housing policy – but in the short term we need short-term emergency rental assistance” said the City’s Chief Housing Officer, Terri Lee.
  • Finally, we need to strive to be educated on issues that impact our businesses, communities, and families. ULI Atlanta has a long tradition of being a ‘big tent’ organization and in doing so can draw the best from all members in real estate and land use around our shared mission of leadership in building better cities. The racial uprisings of the last few weeks have shown how we need to continually ask questions and understand how we’ve been part of the problem; and can also be part of the solution.

For further reading, please see these important zoning, land use, and housing resources (A to Z)

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A special thanks to our moderator, David Kirk with Troutman Sanders and ULI Atlanta’s Programs Committee and member volunteers, Patrick Kassin (Woodfield Development) and Scott Shuman (Arnall Golden Gregory LLP) for organizing this timely event

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