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Sustainable Communities Thought Leadership

Redesigning Atlanta with Equity in Mind

By Kandice Mitchell, Director of State & Local Policy, Southeast, Enterprise Community Partners

In December 2020, the City of Atlanta introduced Atlanta City Design: Housing, a framework that guides urban planning through a set of policy proposals that aim to expand opportunities for housing density, affordability, and inclusivity.  This expansive approach to redesign would be the first overhaul of the city’s zoning code since 1982. These proposals are reflective of the strategy set forth by Mayor Bottom’s ONE Atlanta Housing Action Plan—a strategy built on years of engagement with housing advocates and developers throughout the city to address skyrocketing housing costs and an urban design framework ill-equipped to meet the city’s housing supply and affordability needs.

As the heart of fourth fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States,  Atlanta has both a responsibility and an opportunity to redefine land-use policy and implement a design strategy that uses its zoning code to facilitate inclusive growth, countering the code’s roots as a segregationist tool for discrimination and economic disenfranchisement. Atlanta’s Department of City Planning introduced the reimagining of its zoning code through Atlanta City Design: Aspiring to be the Beloved Community. The book walks readers through the evolution of the city’s planning priorities, which include an ugly history of intentional disinvestment in Black communities and proposes solutions to build healthier communities.

Atlanta City Design: Housing cites Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, which captures the history of state-sanctioned segregation through housing policies that preserved racial castes after the abolition of slavery introduced Black families into the housing market. In the 1930s, the federal government began to economize segregation through the creation of federally backed mortgages that intentionally excluded households of color. Through these programs, known as redlining, the federal government only backed mortgages in white communities, often requiring that the homes be deeded to prohibit future sales or rentals to non-white households

These provisions resulted in mapping processes that ranked neighborhoods on their desirability based on race. Neighborhoods with the highest likelihood for loan approvals were white communities coded as “single-family.” Communities of color were often higher-density communities labeled as “slums” or “hazardous” with almost no likelihood of loan approval, which meant fewer opportunities for home ownership and upward mobility. 

Atlanta City Design: Housing notes this history of exclusionary zoning and reduced density, connecting land-use policy to a pattern of negative outcomes that not only suffocate economic growth for Black families, but also impact quality of life outcomes for families of all racial and economic backgrounds who find themselves priced out of their neighborhoods of choice. 

Zoning reform has the potential to untangle cities like Atlanta from historically racist housing policies. It can also inform city planning processes that create more housing options at a range of price points for working families at all income levels.

This year, Councilmember Amir Farokhi (District 2) introduced a set of ordinances which serve as the inaugural policy proposals to advance the goals of Atlanta City Design. The ordinances propose to 1) increase development of affordable housing near transit, 2) create more flexible options for accessory dwelling units, and 3) lower housing production costs by removing residential parking minimums in certain areas. These proposals, which are under review in each of Atlanta’s impacted Neighborhood Planning Units, allow each community to implement zoning changes that best serve neighborhood needs.

The One Atlanta Housing Affordability Action Plan identified a need for more housing opportunities, especially near transit, in the city. “Missing middle” housing is a critical tool to add more housing options at affordable price points. One of the ordinances targets the production of more missing middle housing near transit and includes affordable housing provisions and density bonuses for small apartment buildings of up to 12-units.

The city also proposes to expand the types and designs of Accessory Dwelling Units that are permitted by the code and create options for separate ownership structures of these units. Notably, the new ordinance would allow ADUs to be attached to the main dwelling (I.e., a basement apartment or garage conversion). Along with untethering parking minimums from the cost of housing, effectively lowering production costs, these proposals reflect a comprehensive approach to addressing Atlanta’s housing needs.

Increasingly, cities across the nation are examining similar discriminatory zoning practices and examining how to amend existing policies that continue a stifling legacy. President Biden has made a national call to end exclusionary zoning policies, recognizing their connection to redlining and the continued negative impact on Black families and other families of color. 

The Department of City Planning is actively presenting these proposals for community feedback. This is a real opportunity to get involved in the design of your city by shaping some of the most impactful changes to its land-use policy in 40 years.

Identify your local NPU to learn more about these proposals and share your concerns

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