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How to induce the private sector to fill Atlanta’s housing gap by rezoning

Credit: Jon Michael Sullivan via Kronberg Urbanists + Architects

By Guest Columnists BRUCE GUNTER and JOEL DIXON, experienced developers of mixed income housing in metro Atlanta

If you agree on the need for more housing options for those of lesser means; want to do more than plant a yard sign to address systemic racism; and decry the yawning wealth gap between black and white households in Atlanta, then here is an action that will change the trajectory regarding housing supply and racial justice, while building net worth. It is single-family zoning reform, a zoning type covering 63% of the land area of the City of Atlanta.

Bruce Gunter (left), Joel Dixon

This technical yet intensely local issue is getting attention for good reasons. Housing supply of all types in the city is in short supply, but especially that considered affordable. Typically, affordable housing requires a large infusion of public subsidy (equity) to close the gap between relatively high housing costs and what a low-to-moderate income household can afford to pay for housing. That subsidy comes primarily from federal tax revenues but also local property taxes.

Unfortunately, counting all sources, the sum is grossly inadequate to address the growing need. Zoning reform in Atlanta can make available more land in one of the least dense major cities in the country for additional housing in a way that will require no subsidy and no tax increase.

This rendering shows how additional houses could be located on property next to existing houses in Atlanta’s English Avenue neighborhood. Credit: Kronberg Urbanists + Architects

In the case of housing, systemic racism is far from abstract or only an historical artifact. One can draw a straight line from the 1929 zoning map of Atlanta, one of the original and blatant manifestations of Jim Crow, to distressed communities of today, which have long suffered from the debilitating effects of forced isolation and disinvestment, resulting in the pattern of segregation we see today. This legacy of Jim Crow is the very definition of “systemic racism”. The line goes in reverse direction to those fortunate to live in Atlanta’s more exclusive single family zoned neighborhoods, where housing values have benefited enormously from this public intervention that has massively restricted housing supply.

Recently, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has followed the announcement of a $100 million Housing Opportunity Bond with a call for zoning reform. Commissioner of Planning Tim Keane and Chief Housing Officer Terri Lee have compiled an inspiring and compelling vision for this in the Atlanta City Design Housing.

Atlanta’s City Planning report contends that the city’s racist zoning and redlining legacy have led to income inequality, reduced housing values in communities of color,’ and lowered educational attainment in Black neighborhoods. Credit: Atlanta

With the supply of affordable housing so low and the demand for affordable—or “missing middle”—housing so high, homebuilders, public officials, urban planners, and advocates agree on the acute need for zoning reform. The City of Atlanta has taken steps to move in this direction, but more is needed. While fully overhauling zoning will take years, we cannot wait that long to address the housing crisis facing us. We need to demonstrate workable improvements now.

The modest but elegant proposal is this. In areas currently zoned single-family, in addition to already allowed detached “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs), allow as eligible uses attached forms of add-on units such as basement apartments. In some older neighborhoods, such housing is grandfathered in, but in most areas such housing is illegal today. Going even further, we could look to modify some of the more racist language that still exists in our current zoning ordinance. Every single-family lot in Atlanta is currently allowed to have a detached guest house on its property. These structures are prohibited from having stoves and are only legal for short-term occupancy if they house “servants or watchmen”. Allowing our servants and watchmen to have stoves in their guest quarters would be an equitable step forward. Even better would be to open the availability for people other than staff to live in these quarters longer term.

This proposal does not consider large rental developments nor will it trigger a deluge of new neighbors into areas now zoned exclusively single-family. Any such allowed additions are voluntary. Rather, the proposal would result in a smattering of additional units scattered across existing neighborhoods. Multiplied across the city, however, the impact on affordable housing supply could be substantial. In addition, this type of housing will deliver additional rental income to the homeowner to build net worth and compensate for rising property taxes, and it will create jobs as small builders and developers responds to the opportunity.

single family zoning in City of Atlanta copy

Almost 60% of the land in the City of Atlanta is zoned for single family detached houses, according to City Planning. Credit: Atlanta

Civic and business leadership of the proposal will be crucial, as this proposal will undoubtably trigger one of the distressingly familiar dynamics of policy change– that many people will be supportive in the abstract while finding ways to be against it in their own backyard. In fact, it might never happen without vigorous leadership and a sustained educational campaign, which allowed Minneapolis—not exactly a poster child for equity issues—to abolish exclusionary, single family zoning last year for these same reasons. Closer to home, Durham, N.C. recently passed similar zoning reform that enables key incremental changes like smaller lot sizes and fee-simple ADU lots. However, at this point WE THE PEOPLE hold the final key to unlocking this reform by supporting current efforts by the city and affordable housing advocates like HouseATL and the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum.

Atlanta, like much of urban America, is finally confronting head on issues that have retarded economic growth, social mobility, and racial justice. In a city with low density, restrictive zoning policies, and an increasingly affluent population bidding up housing prices, single family zoning reform is a systemic reform. It is that rare policy prescription that will cost the public treasury nothing, induce more affordable housing to be developed by the private sector, and most importantly, begin to redress a shameful wrong. Zoning reform is not a silver bullet, but it is a necessary, foundational tool to confront an increasing set of housing challenges that will require every tool at our collective disposal.

Note to readers:

Bruce Gunter’s advocacy for policies that will increase needed housing production is informed by more than 30 years experience in developing a wide range of housing, mostly affordable and mixed-income.

Joel Dixon brings 15 years of sales and business development experience in high technology and real estate to his role as principal with Urban Oasis Development, where he has developed in the market rate and affordable housing sectors.

Advocates of accessory dwelling units contend the dwellings are attractive and compliment a neighborhood. Credit: Jon Michael Sullivan via Kronberg Urbanists + Architects

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8 Comments

  1. Dana Blankenhorn March 8, 2021 7:27 am

    This is a recipe for creating slums, not mixed income. Building 100% of what was a single family lot, jamming hundreds of low-rent apartments into a neighborhood. It works for a while. But without parks, without trees, without land in which to breathe, without places for the water to go and for some wildlife to live., the first downturn will send those “single family” homeowners scurrying, it will drop the economic value of the apartments, and it doesn’t come back.

    We need truly mixed neighborhoods. Mixed with parks and trees and space to breathe. Mixed incomes, but everywhere, not just where you can get away with it. If Atlanta doesn’t become majority middle class, we’re going to be right where we were in 1983. Politicians may like the old status quo, but residents won’t.Report

    Reply
  2. Alex Barrella March 8, 2021 4:11 pm

    lots of words to deflect from the fact that we as a society have the means to fix this purposefully designed crisis.

    we simply have to eminent domain a lot of ‘held by profit based industry’ properties & transform them into free public housing.

    we do this all over the city until everyone is homed. bing bang boom ez peezyReport

    Reply
  3. Dana Blankenhorn March 9, 2021 9:50 am

    If Alex’ program were statewide, if we could take out Cobb and Gwinnett and Cherokee property from the market and diversify their demographics, I would be all for it. But concentrating poor people in one place guarantees that place becomes less attractive to those with more income. It reinforces poverty. It ghettoizes.

    We have a model that works, in projects like East Lake where there is a mix of incomes, and public services that can truly integrate. Building more ghettos is precisely the wrong way to go. It’s Trumpism for poor folk.Report

    Reply
  4. Steve Hagen March 9, 2021 1:08 pm

    Miami allowed this zoning change in about 2000. Not sure if it was allowed city wide but rather on certain size lots because of drainage issues. .Report

    Reply
  5. Dennis Creech March 9, 2021 1:49 pm

    Thanks Bruce and Joel for a well reasoned argument for a solution that we can act on quickly to help address the affordable housing crisis in Atlanta. I would add that energy burden is also a crisis. Energy and water bills for low income residents of Atlanta are some of the highest in the nation. We need to ensure that all affordable housing meets high performance standards for energy and water efficiency in order to be truly affordable.Report

    Reply
  6. Mike Vinciquerra March 9, 2021 5:00 pm

    Cramming more built space on these lots will continue to increase impervious surfaces across our urban areas, thereby putting more pressure on stormwater infrastructure to handle runoff. The current zoning code that is allowing ‘duplexes’ to be built on 70% of in-city lots is a terrible policy that leaves no room for anything but a building and a driveway. Trees may be left in corners of lots, but they will die off in a few years because the root zone have been cut off and greatly restricted. We lack the density of other cities because we don’t have the same volume of multi family housing in concentrated areas. Concentrated development (going up, not out) reduces the amount of land needed to house people and frees up more space for parks or open land with trees, which provides health and other benefits across society. How about if governments start acquiring dying shopping centers and turning those into mixed income developments?
    I have a hard time believing that adding extra dwelling units on single family lots will increase affordable housing stock. If those units can be rented at market rate, they will soon be out of the economic reach of lower income families while creating the added burden on society of increased sewage overflows because not enough rain will seep into the ground where it actually fell.Report

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  7. urban gardener March 9, 2021 8:32 pm

    With existing new developments rattling empty at 30% occupancy it’s hard to see where we have a crisis of lack of units… esp. when combined with all the old rental units taken off the market for AirBnB and single family homes going AirBnB to boot. If tourists were forced to stay in hotels and the old rental stock brought back on-line for residents it would be a good thing for all concerned (save owners who skirt scads of taxes running units without paying fair share of taxes). The crisis isn’t lack of units, its developers allowed to build to highest price point they can force. The market isn’t bearing it well, hence dreadfully low occupancy rates. But the municipalities like the high rates bc it drives out undesirable less well-off folks who don’t pay (as much) into the tax base.
    This smells like more a reason to let developers run amokReport

    Reply
  8. gi frank March 23, 2021 12:30 pm

    Another issue: Planning affordable housing ( real affordable housing) without planning food access add problems: more car traffic to go to where the food is. Increasing density is a need but we need a public transportation system which solve the problems of access to: services, food, green amenities, parks , etc.Report

    Reply

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