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Let’s be honest about single-family housing

Editor’s note: A response to this column from the author of the one cited herein, former state Rep. Bob Irvin, is available here.

By AMIR FAROKHI, an Atlanta City Councilmember seeking reelection to serve a district reaching from Downtown Atlanta through Candler Park.

In the wake of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ Atlanta City Design Housing report, a debate is taking place about what our city should look like in the future. Specifically, how we might alter our zoning code to manage our growth.

Amir Farokhi

It is a difficult but overdue conversation. Because there is a simple truth: More people want to live in Atlanta than our current housing stock allows. Put simply, demand exceeds supply.

This is a bad thing. When housing isn’t available, it forces would-be residents and property tax revenues into surrounding counties. It drives prices to prohibitive levels for those who do live intown. It stymies growth. And let’s be real: cities are either growing or dying.

Change will be hard. Not everyone will live on a half-acre lot in a single-family home. Atlanta will be more populous. New housing approaches and flexibility are critical. That does not mean we need to raze our wonderful single-family neighborhoods but we do need to find ways to welcome more people into the city.

Embracing our growth is necessary to ensure future prosperity. Which is why I was disappointed to read former state Rep. Bob Irvin’s guest column, published April 11 in the SaportaReport, on this topic.

Atlanta’s effort to ‘further fair housing’ includes the construction of a second dwelling unit on the lot of an existing house. File/Credit: Atlanta

At a time when we need forward-thinking and compromise, he offered alarmism: Quintessential “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) hysteria which misrepresented his own self-interest as Atlanta’s shared interest.

In an effort to move towards a more realistic conversation, towards common ground, I’ve listed some of Mr. Irvin’s core points and offered a contrasting view.

A Not So Slippery Slope

First, Mr. Irvin says that the administration wants to “end single family zoning” and create a “developer feeding frenzy.”

But as Ben Hirsh noted in a recent article for Buckhead.com, the actual proposal is “slightly more subtle.” The administration wants to broaden the current allowance for accessory dwelling units to include things like basement apartments or garage conversions. It also suggests lowering minimum lot sizes.

Irvin uses this to make a slippery slope argument. He forecasts “rapacious developers, buying up a few lots, overbuilding them, changing the neighborhood forever … then moving on.”

Minneapolis tells us otherwise. In December 2018, the city up-zoned all single family lots to allow for duplexes and triplexes – a far more sweeping change than what’s on the table in Atlanta.

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

If Irvin’s argument were true, you would expect Minneapolis to now be the equivalent of one giant tiny home village. But according to a recent article, “the number of permits requested in 2020 for new triplexes in the city has reached a whopping total of three.”

This tracks with the Atlanta experience. ADUs are already permitted across much of the city, including in neighborhoods that I represent. Yet, it has not led to the implosion of home values or the character of these neighborhoods.

Perhaps we should recognize this portion of the mayor’s plan for what it is – incremental change. And simply a suggestion at that. She herself recently stated that it’s all likely to be “scaled down.”

Parking Requirements

Mr. Irvin also takes issue with the relaxation of residential and commercial minimum parking requirements. His belief is that unless forced, developers won’t add parking, resulting in overcrowded streets.

He is undervaluing the impact of market forces.

To turn a profit, developers create things that people want to buy. If you are designing an office building for businesses with commuting employees, you build parking. If you are designing a house far from transit, you’re likely to include a two-car garage if you want it to sell.

Frankly, Atlanta has too much parking. Case in point: Downtown Atlanta with its 95,000 oft-unused spaces. Spaces that could have been developed into buildings that generate tax revenue, but instead exist as empty deserts.

The same applies to nearly every part of town. And, as walkability and transit options become more prevalent, demand will fall further for these lots.

Race and Zoning

The conversion of space above a carriage house into a suitable residence is one way to create additional dwelling units in Atlanta. Credit: Atlanta

Mr. Irvin states that, “some extremists even say that all zoning everywhere is evil because they find racism in its origins 100 years ago. I don’t know about that.”

Well, I do know that about that. It’s true. Zoning itself isn’t evil. But its historic application in the U.S. has been used to achieve racist ends. Indeed, Atlanta’s first zoning code was struck down by the courts because of its explicit intent to subdivide the city based on race.

It behooves anyone speaking to this topic to offer up more than “I don’t know about that,” given how central race is to our history and this conversation.

What Zoning Can Do 

But beyond any one point, there is an overarching philosophy voiced by Mr. Irvin that must be struck down:

  • “I do know what zoning does now. It protects homeowners of all races and economic levels. It protects their neighborhoods. It protects their families. It protects their largest investment. It protects their lifestyle. It protects our city.”

For so many, this is patently false. Atlanta has near the worst income inequality rates in the nation. We have an affordable housing crisis. A city where most residents are being pushed further and further away from the city’s core – from schools, from transit, from jobs, from opportunity.

And our zoning code plays a role in this.

Irvin says that the administration wants to make changes “without consideration of infrastructure needs, such as schools, police and fire protection … it will self-evidently increase traffic.”

Here’s the counter-argument: With flexible zoning laws, more people can afford to live intown. That means greater property tax revenue to pay for things like schools, public safety, and infrastructure as well as the ability to more efficiently allocate the resources we already have. It also entails fewer metro area commuters, meaning that traffic need not be self-evident. And, as an aside, find me a successful big city without traffic.

In short, allowing for greater density is a necessity. So too is talking about it free of hyperbole. It’s not NIMBYism vs. “rapacious developers,” but rather a search for the right balance between protecting our neighborhoods and ensuring our future. All cities change as they grow. The question is how we will manage that growth.

Notes to readers:

Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi chairs the council’s Zoning Committee and has represented council District 2 (Downtown, Midtown, Old Fourth Ward, Inman Park, Poncey-Highland, and Candler Park) since 2018.

Three guest columns have appeared on this topic:

 

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11 Comments

  1. Bruce Gunter May 30, 2021 7:08 pm

    Hurray for your truth telling, Amir. Artfully worded NIMBY is still NIMBY. Hyperbole and fear mongering should give way for reasonable dialogue about balanced growth. It is time that we moved beyond yard signs. Otherwise, where will people live–or more to the point, where will people who are not wealthy live? They won’t be able to live in the city, but they will drive into it. Is that the beloved community we want? And Atlantans in every neighborhood owe it to themselves to learn about the origins of our zoning (as in many cities). That zoning was a tangible example of Jim Crow, and the lingering impact of such past nefarious practices continues to hold our city down today. We can open up the market while rectifying past wrongs–and grow in a smart way that includes more people.Report

    Reply
    1. Daniel Lauber May 31, 2021 7:34 pm

      Sorry, but except for the blatantly illegal racial zoning in some cities, zoning has never been about Jim Crow. It has been abused plenty, but without it you wind up a mess like intensely segregated Houston which has no zoning. Nor is zoning responsible for racial segregation. I’ve conducted about a dozen analyses of impediments to fair housing (including for Houston) and we’ve consistently found that a small percentage of the Black households that can afford to live in wealthier parts of a city live there. Real estate industry practices continue to play a major role in forcing segregation upon us. (Don’t get me wrong, government has and continues to play a major role, but the real estate industry, including mortgage lenders and real estate agents who steer, are the prime force behind maintaining segregated neighborhoods.) As the author of “Ending American Apartheid: How Cities Achieve and Maintain Racial Diversity,” I can report that the key is expanding housing choices so that Black folk don’t restrict themselves to looking solely in Black and integrated neighborhoods and whites don’t look at housing only in virtually all-whtie neighborhoods. Of course, it’s all more complex than that, but establishing a regional housing center like the famed Oak Park Regional Housing Center is the key to reducing housing segregation and moving toward stable, integrated neighborhoods.Report

      Reply
    2. Christopher Gorton June 1, 2021 12:37 pm

      When it comes to the debate on housing density, the term “NIMBY” is thrown about and used incorrectly. “NIMBY” (or Not In My Back Yard) refers to the conundrum created when all of those that benefit from a public good (like a water treatment plant) also refuse to allow the source of that public good to be located near their home.
      There is no agreement whatsoever that higher density housing represents a “public” good from which everyone benefits. And without such agreement, using the term NIMBY in this debate is non-sensical. However, I do find it interesting that by using the term – albeit incorrectly – even the advocates of higher density housing are thereby tacitly acknowledging its inherent lack of desirability.Report

      Reply
  2. Mark Richardson May 31, 2021 5:12 pm

    Irvin has a point about overbuilding new residential and commercial without increasing transportation infrastructure. The fact is that you can build increased walkability but will such new residents walk, bike, or ride public transit in high numbers?

    Our experience in Denver with greatly increased density and gentrification has been that building a huge amount of increased density has continued to raise property values, pushing out the working-class and the middle-class.

    Then there is the fact that a high percentage of the owners of million-dollar condos still need their cars. They may walk to local restaurants or other local retail but more than 90% don’t work in the expensive neighborhoods that they live in, and more than 80% commute an average of 20 miles roundtrip by car. This fact causes local roads in such neighborhoods to become choked with traffic demand local roads weren’t designed of handle.

    Here we have an extensive rail mass transit system as well as a 10-county bus system but ridership is only 4.2% of local trips. About 3.2% of trips are by bicycle. Zero percent of through trips are by transit or bicycle. Some walk and some work from home, but about 80% of our locals drive alone and have for more than 60 years.

    Just upping density and increasing walkability and bike-ability isn’t going to markedly change long-ingrained habits especially if the price of housing just keeps rising. Wealthy condo owners see public transit as beneath their economic standing.

    Here in Metro-Denver our median home price is now $674K, up 11% since before COVID started, even though we have been averaging over 30,000 new housing units annually here for the last 20 years.Report

    Reply
  3. David Eads June 1, 2021 10:29 am

    I moved to Austin from Atlanta (and still spend time in Atlanta). Austin has subdivided lots (ADUs) all over the place now. I see it happening in Nashville too. I live in the second house on a lot (which in my case is the larger house). I actually was surprised that this isn’t happening more across metro Atlanta when I was there two weeks ago. I think it’s a more efficient use of space. While the neighborhood has undoubtedly changed from what it was before, it was going to change anyway with new residents moving in. I like the way my neighborhood is evolving and I think it can be good for many places in Atlanta.Report

    Reply
  4. Dana F. Blankenhorn June 1, 2021 11:16 am

    I have some thoughts https://danafblankenhorn.substack.com/p/latinizing-americas-cities

    In a word, Amir’s plan would turn Atlanta into Sao Paulo. Density has demands, or the middle class will move out. He’s not seeing it.Report

    Reply
  5. Shaun June 1, 2021 11:27 am

    Thank you Amir for highlighting the lies and hyperbole of Bob Irwins column and bringing the conversation back around to be more nuanced and fact-based. The fact is Atlanta is changing and growing (a good thing!) and we need to revisit some of our zoning laws to better address our current challenges and allow for more housing and less car-dependent development. Nowhere is there a plan to “get rid of zoning” or whatever else he’s trying to fear monger about. Even though I’m not in your district I’m glad to have you representing our city. Thank you.Report

    Reply
  6. Christopher Gorton June 1, 2021 12:23 pm

    Given that you are a sitting City Council member, I was surprised by your statement “With flexible zoning laws, more people can afford to live intown”

    This is as untrue as it is an incomplete analysis of the problem.

    Increasing the supply of housing does not result in lower housing costs. But to be fair, you are hardly alone in this errant belief. It is pervasive in the land use and zoning debate these days. Consider this: if increasing housing density was the silver bullet for high housing prices, why does New York City – the city with the highest housing density in the entire country – also fall into the top 1% for the price of housing? And why does a city like Fort Collins, CO, which has one of the lowest housing densities, also rank as one of the most affordable?

    The answer is complicated and, at the very least, has to include the demand for housing – not merely the supply. And I would argue that well-meaning politicians who work feverishly to market Atlanta almost exclusively to higher wage employers do more to push the cost of housing upward than just about anything else. Higher wages invariably leads to an increase in demand for pricier homes. Add to that that the city invariably chooses to raise property taxes over finding ways to make the provision of local government more efficient and we are well on our way to a productive discussion that at least has some hope of moving the needle on housing affordability.

    And if you are going to take the position that it’s time for a “difficult but overdue conversation” that champions higher density housing and what you perceive as a need for Atlanta to move away from its cherished single family housing, don’t you think you ought to disclose to readers that you personally live in a single family home on a corner lot in a neighborhood that is one of Atlanta’s most densely populated?Report

    Reply
  7. urban gardener June 1, 2021 9:32 pm

    The truth will out – will Mr Farokhi vote for the Blended tree ordinance or will he vote for the City ordinance.Report

    Reply
  8. Charlie June 2, 2021 9:06 pm

    Our city leadership is terribly inadequate for the city we have today. Let’s focus on improving crime, sanitation, roads, sidewalks, schools before we go vying for more tax dollars. Many of Atlanta’s existing high dollar tax payers are on the fence about packing up and leaving for a better run municipality.Report

    Reply
  9. Eric Kronberg June 4, 2021 6:18 pm

    Amir, thanks so much for your piece. These are hard issues for so many people to get their heads around, and there are so many reasons thrown against the wall as excuses to try and resist change. We have so many folks moving to town due to successful attraction of jobs, and no housing to support it. We absolutely need better transit infrastructure, but that’s no excuse to not move forward with desperately needed housing reform.Report

    Reply

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