The Brookhaven City Council is expected to decide later this month if it wants to enshrine “workforce housing” in its revamped zoning code that would require developers to build a certain number of affordable units in new multiunit projects along Buford Highway.

Doing so would be a “bold step” to ensure housing for residents like police officers and teachers, according to an Atlanta official who successfully pushed for inclusionary zoning along the BeltLine. But a local apartment association warns putting a mandate to build a certain number of affordable units would put a financial burden on developers and could lead to a decrease in the housing stock.

The official language in Brookhaven’s proposed zoning rewrite calls for a mandate on “workforce housing.” The mandate is commonly called inclusionary zoning and would require 10 percent affordable units in new multiunit developments within a proposed new Buford Highway Overlay.

Proponents of inclusionary zoning say it would ensure city employees, teachers, police officers, nurses and retail workers have the option to live where they work instead of seeking cheaper housing outside Brookhaven. Finding ways to reduce commuter traffic via housing affordability also leads to less traffic congestion, say supporters of inclusionary zoning.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

Opponents argue that inclusionary zoning mandates put financial burdens on the developers and even other renters and homeowners because they end up paying higher rents to subsidize the less expensive housing.

Should Brookhaven even try to set affordable housing policy? Absolutely, said Mayor John Ernst.

“Land use is our responsibility. That’s our role in setting zoning policy,” he said. “What people do with private money is up to them. We set the guidelines that affect the city … including having housing stock at different price points.”

The city created an Affordable Housing Task Force two years ago after local faith leaders urged the City Council to show compassion and think of the lower-income people and immigrants living on Buford Highway where rapid redevelopment is underway. They said they were seeing hundreds of people being displaced as developers tore down aging, affordable apartment complexes to build luxury townhomes.

City leaders also expect the new Peachtree Creek Greenway and the new Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta medical campus at North Druid Hills and I-85 to spur millions of dollars of redevelopment along the international corridor known for its international restaurants and businesses.

Ernst said Brookhaven includes some of the lower-end housing inside the Perimeter along Buford Highway, and includes some of the highest-priced homes in metro Atlanta. Anecdotally, he said, he’s heard in the past year a new single-family detached house has not been built in the city for less than $800,000. Rents along Buford Highway can be as low as $700.

Those vast differences provide an opportunity for the city to set policy to address the disparity, he said.

“We want to find a way to have all levels of housing in the city, so people can live, work and play in Brookhaven,” Ernst said.

Brookhaven’s decision to consider inclusionary zoning in its zoning rewrite is a “bold step,” said Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens. “I’m surprised at the boldness,” he said. “Every time this happens, it makes it easier for the next [city].”

Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens. (Special)

The Atlanta City Council late last year approved inclusionary zoning for new apartments along the BeltLine — a park, trail and transit line that will circle the city — requiring developers to set aside 10 to 15 percent of units for affordable housing. Dickens authored the legislation and worked for three years with many collaborators and developers to get it passed, he said.

Dickens wants to take his experience and create a “critical mass” of metro Atlanta cities, including Brookhaven, to share best practices and develop guidelines as part of a regional approach to housing affordability.

“Cities can do it one-by-one, but that’s hard,” he said. “When you can get to critical mass, you eliminate the fear and rhetoric.”

That rhetoric can include developers threatening to take their proposed developments “10 miles down the road” to a city without housing affordability mandates, Dickens said. “That threat goes away if all the cities come together,” he said.

At the Brookhaven City Council’s Oct. 23 meeting, Penelope Moceri, director of government affairs for the Atlanta Apartment Association, said during public comment that requiring a certain number of affordable units in a new apartment development would unfairly impact the residents who can afford higher rents.

“Those living in unsubsidized units will pay for those who are subsidized,” she said. “The challenge is … who bears the cost.”

Atlanta Apartment Association President Jim Fowler. (Special)

The Atlanta Apartment Association is one of the largest local apartment associations in the country, representing over 1,450 member-companies consisting of 370 companies managing more than 390,000 apartment homes, according to its website.

Jim Fowler, president of the AAA, said in a written statement their members prefer voluntary and incentive-based programs such as tax abatements over inclusionary zoning. These types of incentive programs “effectively reduce the impact of the cost of price-controlled units,” he said.

Tax abatements allow a government, usually through a development authority, to significantly reduce property taxes on a new development for an established period. A city tax abatement can also reduce county and school tax revenue.

Brookhaven’s proposed zoning rewrite does include provisions for density bonuses to developers who build more than the mandated number of affordable units. For example, a developer exceeding 10 percent affordable units could be able to build an extra story on a building, creating room for more market-rate apartments.

The zoning rewrite also includes provisions to allow the City Council to approve on a case-by-case basis other incentives, like fee waivers, expedited permitting and economic development incentives, such as tax abatements.

Tax incentives are useful when it comes to ensuring housing affordability, said Rebekah Morris, board chair of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, or Neighbors of Buford Highway. The nonprofit group advocates for residents living in Buford Highway apartments and they are watching the city’s zoning rewrite closely.

The aging complexes on Buford Highway are being eyed by developers for renovations and razing to make way for more expensive housing, she said.

Los Vecinos de Buford Highway Board Chair Rebekah Morris.

Finding ways to preserve existing complexes as affordable housing stock while also supporting inclusionary zoning and other city policies can determine if residents can remain in the communities where they have lived for years, she said.

“We provide tax incentives for economic development … that are good for corporations,” she said. “And that’s manipulating the [free] market for what you believe is beneficial to your city.

“Can we think the same way, use the same logic, that it’s OK for a city to invest in its people?” she asked. “And use them to attract, maintain and preserve the communities that are the life and soul of our cities.”

Inclusionary zoning policies are relatively new to the metro Atlanta area, Fowler of the AAA said, and it will take time to fully assess the impact on apartment community residents and overall housing affordability. But the AAA and other developers are wary.

Fowler warned inclusionary zoning without incentives could lead developers and apartment property owners to deem certain residential projects as “infeasible,” leading to a decrease in housing construction. They could also be forced to increase rents for the remaining market-rate units in order to build new housing supply, he said. But he added it was important for all stakeholders to find common ground.

“Housing affordability is an ongoing discussion throughout the region as cities and counties deal with how best to address their specific affordability concerns,” he said. “It is also a priority for our members as we work to balance the increased costs of land, construction and operating expenses with maintaining affordability for apartment residents.”

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.