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White House spotlight on Atlanta appears amid talks on affordability, density

affordable housing, West End

Atlanta has established a $40 million fund to help low income homeowners pay to upgrade their homes. Now, it's common for folks to leave such homes and for developers to buy, renovate and flip them at prices higher than the former residents can afford. File/Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s rising housing costs are now clearly on the national stage, given their prominence in a recent White House report. The report’s toolkit of policies already is being cited in talks in Atlanta about how to promote the supply of affordable housing.

Here’s what the Housing Development Toolkit has to say about Atlanta. The report was released Sept. 26:

  • “Growing, dynamic cities like Atlanta, Denver, and Nashville used to be able to tout housing affordability as a key asset – but now see rents rising above the reach of many working families.”

This is hardly news to anyone who’s tried to find a home in Atlanta.

Two-bedroom apartments are going for more than $2,000 a month, not just near the OK Café in Buckhead but also near the Historic Fourth Ward Park behind what a lot of folks still call the “old Sears building” on Ponce de Leon Avenue – the building now known at Ponce City Market.

Meantime, the construction boom in Midtown is slated to bring 10,008 apartments to market, according to a report by Midtown Alliance. There’s no ready indication of how many of them will be affordable to those earning $37,800 a year – the salary of a low-income worker in a one-person household in metro Atlanta, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Midtown apartment construction

A total of 10,008 apartments are either under construction or in the planning pipeline in Midtown. This map shows the projects on the northern region of Midtown. Credit: Midtown Alliance

What is news are the green shoots of a willingness to talk about one solution to the rising cost of housing: Density.

It’s true that Penny Moceri drew criticism when she cited the White House report, and its references to density, in her comments last week at Atlanta City Hall. Naysayers said her comment was just what’s expected from a representative of the Atlanta and Georgia Apartment Associations; a heckler said she represents building owners and not renters.

But no one disputed the content of her comments, which came straight out of the White House report – for three decades, barriers to affordable rental housing have intensified and resulted in a shortage of homes priced across the spectrum.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when one or more respondents would have stepped forward with the traditional defense against Moceri’s comments – rental property depresses the value of nearby houses, lowers the quality of schools, and destabilizes communities.

Density is such anathema in Atlanta that intown residents rejected it even as a way to pay for development of the Atlanta BeltLine.

By definition, the BeltLine relies upon rising property value to pay for trails, parks and – eventually – transit. But residents balked at permitting any structure much higher than six floors. Consequently, the tax revenues to pay for the BeltLine, as it was originally envisioned, may never be realized.

The traction of the White House report was evident at a recent panel discussion at Georgia Tech. When panelist Barbara Faga mentioned the report and asked if anyone had seen it, many in the audience of about 60 raised their hands.

The report has popped up even in conversations about the mobility issues that were at the heart of Tuesday’s referenda. Atlanta voters were asked if they want to raise the sales tax to fund more than $2 billion in transportation projects in the city. Here’s how the report characterizes the impact that occurs when affordable housing isn’t in close proximity to employment centers:

  • “The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions.”

Density is the No. 1 recommendation in the White House toolkit, which offers a total of 10 solutions.

The notion is called, “by-right development.” In practice, a development can be approved administratively if it complies with zoning and other requirements. The public doesn’t get a chance to comment, which reduces the time and uncertainty of getting a building permit approved or disapproved.

Here’s how it works in one community that’s been lifted as a role model for Atlanta:

affordable housing, West End

Investors are back in business in the West End. After the homes are upgraded they are priced higher than the historic ranges for the neighborhood. File/Credit: David Pendered

  • “Fairfax County, Va. has implemented by-right development in seven districts, with the goal of encouraging economic development through flexibility in zoning regulations and administrative processes in older commercial areas. These more flexible zoning regulations include 40-50 foot increases in building height, parking requirement reductions, and abbreviated fees and approval processes for development changes.”

Atlanta Councilmember Andre Dickens is quick to note that the affordable housing legislation now pending before the council won’t solve all the issues related to housing affordability. During the Nov. 2 work session at which Moceri spoke, he often invited other councilmembers to file legislation to create a situation where building owners can offer a range of housing prices. Still, the legislation for which he’s the lead sponsor puts density in play:

  • Incentives include a 15 percent density bonus, which increases the amount of floor area that will be allowed in the new development, plus a property tax incentive.
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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