A new package of city housing policy proposals aimed at increasing density and affordability is being greeted in Buckhead with fear, skepticism, confusion — and even a few ideas at least as radical as those of planning officials.
The “Atlanta City Design Housing” document, released in December, “calls for bold zoning reform to allow more affordable housing types and stronger neighborhoods to address issues of inequality exacerbated by the city’s zoning code,” according to its introduction.
Among roughly a dozen policy proposals, the plan calls for allowing small apartment buildings in neighborhoods near transit stations, and additional or accessory dwelling units — like basement apartments or rear-yard houses — in all single-family zones. Those ideas — which could become formally proposed zoning ordinances within a couple of months — have drawn formal criticisms from local Neighborhood Planning Units and the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.
At the January meeting of Buckhead’s NPU B, the reactions ranged from thoughtful to visceral. Nancy Bliwise, the NPU’s chair, said she had read “The Color of Law,” a 2017 history of how racist zoning helped to create segregation in American cities, a book that informed the city’s plan. She said she understands “historical issues of injustice and how that’s led to income inequality issues.” But, she added, the city has not taken into account how increased density would affect streets, schools and trees, and she questioned whether the proposals really would make property more affordable.
Bill Murray, NPU B’s zoning committee chair, was blunt in criticizing the plan’s borrowings from policies in other cities, saying Atlanta’s neighborhoods are unique and the city should not “force” change on them. “If I wanted to live in Denver, I’d go live in Denver. I don’t give a [expletive],” he said.
Josh Humphries, the city’s director of housing and community development, said in an interview that “Atlanta solutions to Atlanta problems” is the overall goal, not “cookie-cutter policies that are done in every comparable city.” He noted that some of the proposals, like mingling two- or four-unit apartment buildings among single-family houses, were once common in Atlanta before racist zoning laws of the 1920s. The plan specifically cites Frankie Allen Park in Buckhead, which was created for White residents in the 1940s and ’50s by demolishing the majority-Black neighborhood of Macedonia Park and displacing its residents.
Part of the local confusion about the plan is which proposals will transform into actual City Council zoning legislation and when. Extremely brief overviews at recent NPU meetings by city officials who could not immediately answer detailed questions gave the impression of a process moving quickly with few details available for public vetting.
Humphries said some of the proposals are developing quickly into formal legislation, including those about apartments near transit, increased accessory dwelling units, and the elimination of minimum parking requirements on new developments. But, he said, the city needs more resident input on the details, at the very least through the required process of two rounds of NPU meetings and additional conversations by request.
“We’re committed to seeing legislation introduced that has a chance of passing and represents the needs and desires of people across the city,” he said. “… We’re more committed to getting it where we feel like we’re in a good place than a hard timeline.”
In Buckhead, a community known for its exclusive neighborhoods, the plan drew particular concern for a recommendation worded with radical flair: “End exclusionary single-family zoning.” Widely misinterpreted as meaning the elimination of single-family zoning, it really means allowing those additional and accessory dwelling units while maintaining the overlying zoning. But that still threatens the desire to live somewhere with lower density — or more class exclusivity.
“There’s this kind of existential question we have about what kind of city we want to become,” said Humphries, noting the city must face a booming population and has a policy command to seek equity. He emphasized the plan’s suggestions are aimed at “nuanced, subtle” increases in housing within existing patterns, not gigantic new developments or sweeping rezonings.
“We’re not proposing that we put large apartments on West Paces Ferry Road. We’re proposing that someone who has a house there could create a situation on the second floor of their home where their mother could live… or they could rent out,” Humphries said. “My general response to that [concern about exclusivity] is, to be a participant in the future of the city and inclusivity of the city doesn’t require drastic change…,” he said. “If we grow in subtle ways, it’s a more natural growth.”
In a Jan. 23 letter to the city, NPU B — which has several real estate agents among its active members — expressed many practical and theoretical concerns with the plan. NPU members said history shows rents continue to skyrocket even where supply is increased or where accessory dwelling units are allowed, and questioned whether the banking and mortgage industry would go along with innovative financing.
“The plan does not address any capacity planning, infrastructure expansion, or impact on natural resources nor the financing necessary to expand,” the letter added in another concern.
But NPU B had some ideas of its own. One was “mandatory requirements for a subsidy that is either paid for by the purchasers of market units or by the apartment developers and put[ting] the funds in an affordability fund which can be distributed as housing vouchers. This would allow affordable units to succeed, enabling all working families to secure housing.”
The policy recommendations
The gist of the housing plan is that limiting vast swaths of the city to single-family, exclusionary zoning causes two problems: an artificially low supply of housing and enforced racial and economic segregation. The policy recommendations to address those issues include the following. To read the full plan, see its website.
- “End exclusionary single-family zoning”. That would happen by “allowing an additional dwelling unit in all existing single-family zoned areas in the city.” Those could be basement apartments, rear-yard homes, garage conversions and more.
- “Make accessory dwelling units easier to build and buy.” Accessory dwelling units are “detached structures with a housing unit, often built in backyards.” They are currently allowed only in a small amount of residentially zoned areas. The plan suggests allowing ADUs to be sold separately by permitting the creation of “flag lots,” where the property is subdivided but still falls under the zoning restrictions of the parent lot. Flag lots have a history of controversy in Buckhead redevelopment plans.
- “Allow small apartment buildings by-right near transit.” That means within a half-mile of MARTA stations. By “small,” the plan means three to 12 units, and that historically buildings of two to four units were common in residential neighborhoods.
- “End minimum parking requirements citywide.” Parking requirements promote car-oriented development, drives up construction costs and increases traffic, the plan says. The recommendation includes commercial as well as residential properties.
- “Increase density in the Growth Areas.” The reference is to parts of the city, generally along main streets like Peachtree Road, that are already pegged for denser development in the city’s urban plan. The city says 1,954 parcels, totaling 909 acres, within those areas are currently zoned either single- or two-family and could be proactively upzoned.
- “Reduce minimum lot size requirements.” Another density-boosting proposal.
- “Distribute dedicated affordable housing more equitably across the city.” One suggestion is placing such planned affordable housing by Atlanta Public Schools clusters. That concept would put about 16% of the city’s affordable units in Buckhead’s North Atlanta Cluster.
- “Expand the Urban Enterprise Zone program.” That’s a tax break program offering a 10-year abatement for any type of project where at least 20% of housing units are dedicated affordable. The expansion is already in the works on the Westside, Humphries said.
- “Create affordability districts near major public investment projects.” That would be an inclusionary zoning like that in the Atlanta BeltLine corridor, which requires all rental projects with more than 10 units to make 10% to 15% of all units affordable for 20 years. The program could expand to include ownership units as well.
- “Leverage publicly owned vacant land.” In “Growth Areas,” public agencies own 259 vacant parcels totaling 363 acres, the plan says. Putting those up for housing construction is more of an internal policy effort the city could carry out.
- “Expand the Housing Innovation Lab.” A reference to coming with site-specific experiments in affordable housing concepts through the city’s Atlanta City Studio program.