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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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:
- Bruce Gunter and Joel Dixon: How to induce the private sector to fill Atlanta’s housing gap by rezoning. March 7, SaportaReport.com
- Bob Irvin: Protect Neighborhoods by saving zoning. April 11, SaportaReport.com
- Gloria Cheatham: Save Atlanta from a dense and treeless fate. April 19, AtlantaCivicCircle.org