Preserve it. Build it. And get to and from it in ways besides cars.
That’s the key message about middle-income housing affordability in a long-awaited study pitched, largely for purposes of political acceptance, as about cutting Buckhead’s commuter traffic. The idea is that the more workers can afford to live in Buckhead – and few can today – the less congestion there will be.
“The best way to deal with a commute is to get rid of it,” said Denise Starling, executive director of Livable Buckhead, the nonprofit that joined the Buckhead Community Improvement District in commissioning the study. Dubbed the “Buckhead Housing and Commuting Study,” it was created by HR&A Advisors at a cost of $140,000.
The study — click here for a full copy — says that only 8% of Buckhead “workers” live in the neighborhood. The “vast majority” live in suburban areas and must commute there.
The fastest-growing segment of the local workforce is middle-income, roughly meaning a household making $50,000 a year. But of the roughly 5,800 housing units under construction in Buckhead, about 90% are priced at higher incomes. The majority of new apartments in the pipeline are expected to rent for more than $1,875 a month, the study says.
Housing Buckhead’s entire workforce would take an additional 61,000 units, the study estimates. That’s impossible both in terms of space and in people’s desire and ability to live there. So the study tried to estimate “capturable demand” – a realistic number of units that could be built or preserved to house a workers who can live in the neighborhood. The study figures a gap in demand of about 5,000 units for households making under $50,000 a year, and a gap of about 6,000 units for higher incomes.
The study recommends three basic strategies for dealing with housing affordability and commutes, which are broken down into various details. Virtually all of them would have to be used, rather than a single magic answer.
Making existing housing affordable is one strategy. Buckhead currently has about 1,500 apartment units priced at under $875 a month, and 9,600 under $1,250 a month, the study says. Tactics for keeping such housing including “preferred employer” programs, where workers from certain partner companies get discounts on rents, and having “mission-oriented housing preservation investors” purchase properties.
Last year’s displacement of hundreds of tenants from Peachtree Road’s Darlington Apartments for a luxury renovation is the kind of scenario the study recommends preventing. “That came up and we’re like, ‘You’re kidding!’” said Starling.
But the solutions can be tricky. As the study notes, preferred employer programs became controversial in Seattle for running afoul of federal nondiscrimination laws and for being used as perks for well-paid employees of such mega-corporations as Amazon rather than to help lower-income residents. AMLI Residential already runs preferred employer programs in some Buckhead apartments, and Starling said such programs are “really key,” but acknowledged the potential legal and gentrification-oriented challenges. “When you’re using it just to recruit talent, it could go in the wrong direction,” she said.
Building more “workforce” housing is another obvious strategy, but it’s not easy to do. Various methods suggested in the study are including it in transit-oriented development that may come to MARTA’s Lindbergh Center and Brookhaven-Oglethorpe stations; permitting such new housing types as microunits and coliving; and providing tax abatements and other incentives for mixed-income projects.
Starling said she believes developers often have a misunderstanding that Buckhead’s land prices make it too expensive to build affordable housing. She said it is more cost-effective than many other places, because the neighborhood already has good infrastructure and institutions, such as employers, schools and hospitals, that make communities work and do not need to also be built from scratch.
Starling says she also aims to “change the perception it’s just greedy developers out to make money” that are behind housing affordability challenges. She said the developers are often following the lead of investors who demand high returns. What is really needed, she said, is more “mission-based social investors” who will back mixed-income projects.
The study’s third strategy is reducing car commutes for new workers. That could include a wide variety of alternative commuting options, building fewer car-oriented uses into new developments, and freeing residents from requirements to buy or lease parking spaces.
Buckhead needs to put all of those pieces together, Starling says, because it can’t just build its way out of traffic. “If we just continue to build all this stuff and continue to be filled with people who don’t live here, we’ve done nothing,” she said.
The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, a coalition of civic and homeowners associations, is also working on traffic reduction recommendations, with housing affordability on its list. In fact, Livable Buckhead and the BCID spent an extra $10,000 to have their consultant make sure the study matched the BCN’s numbers. Starling said she’s “skeptical” of some BCN suggestions, such as tolling on residential streets, but agrees with most of them and sees a high point in cooperation on the commuting issue between the business district and the neighborhoods.
“A lot of things the Buckhead Council is talking about now are things we’ve never had alignment on before,” she said. “People are like, ‘What? Buckhead wants transit now?’”