Sandy Springs should rewrite its zoning policies to allow more affordable housing in a challenge to the policy of preserving “protected neighborhoods,” a city Diversity and Inclusion Task Force committee said.

“I believe that if we don’t get this one right, if we don’t ensure the presence of a very vibrant minority community in Sandy Springs, then the rest of our work is less important, because they may be displaced, they may not be here for us to receive the benefits of this other work,” Olivia Rocamora, who heads the Housing & Transportation committee, said during the task force’s April 13 meeting.

Members of the Sandy Springs Diversity and Inclusion Task Force heard presentations on housing and recreation during their April 13 meeting.

Sandy Springs adopted changes to its comprehensive land use plan in 2017 that designated about 67% of the city’s land area as “Protected Neighborhood.” That is a local term for exclusionary zoning in single-family areas, where higher-density redevelopment is barred and limited to major road corridors and public transit nodes.

“So the bottom line when we talk about housing affordability is that we are talking about apartments,” Rocamora said. “We are talking about rent because the vast majority of Sandy Springs minority communities reside in apartments. Obviously, this reality creates a lot of challenges in ensuring diversity and inclusion.” 

She said the term “affordable housing” has negative connotations, so she intentionally says “housing affordability.”

Her committee recommended:

  • Debunking myths about housing affordability and building the public will to embrace it.
  • Increasing access to local newspapers.
  • Rewriting zoning policies to allow for more housing affordability.
  • Hiring a city staff person to exclusively oversee redevelopment from a racial equity and housing affordability lens.
  • Continuing studying housing affordability.
  • Identifying and incentivizing developers who will act on behalf of diversity and inclusion.

Anti-displacement housing policies

In zoning, Rocamora suggested the city enact anti-displacement housing policies, including rewriting zoning policies to allow for more affordable housing. Rezoning to allow more multifamily residential housing was another goal she suggested.

Rocamora said 85% of the city’s residential land is zoned to not allow apartments even though 52% of the population rents.

“This is one of the highest percentages in the nation,” Rocamora said, citing a New York Times article.

Homeowners are not allowed to build a garage apartment, she said, which would enable them to help solve the housing crisis for one family at a time.

Rabbi Joshua Heller, another task force member, questioned how the city could get more stakeholders to work for these goals.

“I think there are a lot of stakeholders who in theory might be in favor of diversity and opposed to racism and so on, but when push comes to shove, don’t want more apartments in Sandy Springs,” Heller said.

He cited the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, a coalition of homeowners associations that is a prominent advocate for the “protected neighborhoods” zoning. 

“I’m wondering how we can engage them and get those parts of the population to understand what we’re trying to do here and have them come on board, rather than have their opposition,” Heller said.

Rocamora pointed out that the Council of Neighborhoods limits membership to members of homeowners associations.

She wants the city to hire a staff person to exclusively oversee redevelopment from a racial equity and housing affordability lens. This staff member would prioritize preserving existing apartment buildings with the idea of renovating while keeping rents low over razing them and building more expensive apartments.

“I am a lover of nature. I love trees. The city of Sandy Springs has at least two people on staff that oversee the tree canopy when there’s construction to make to make sure to protect trees when there is more development,” Rocamora said. “The least we can do is hire one person who has the same responsibility, but for communities that are at risk of being displaced.”

Incentives for housing affordability

Another major issue in her committee’s presentation said the city offers incentives to developers to redevelop areas that are considered of lower value, including apartment complexes. This makes minority communities vulnerable to displacement.

The Gateway project, a 21-acre mixed use development along Roswell Road across from Windsor Parkway, opened in 2015 and displaced more than 2,200 residents, with 85% of them people of color. The 1,448 Latino residents who lost their homes made up 64% of that total. The project replaced these apartments with retail experiences, office space, and luxury apartments with expansive outdoor patios.

“There’s a connection here between development and the impact and displacement of minorities,” she said.

The city should incentivize developers to redevelop low-value areas with a commitment to housing affordability, she said. One method Charlotte, North Carolina used was to create a fund to buy old apartment complexes. They purchase decades old apartment complexes to renovate them. Rents are kept steady. The apartment complexes turn a profit, though it isn’t large.

‘Debunking myths’ about housing affordability

The first recommendation from the Housing & Transportation Committee was to educate and motivate the public by “debunking myths” creating hesitancy about housing affordability options.

A myth Rocamora said the city’s own Housing Needs Assessment debunks is that apartments are the source of the city’s traffic problems.

“It said as more workers are forced to live elsewhere in the region, traffic congestion will likely worsen as the number of commuters increases,” she said.

Rocamora said she thinks most residents are unaware of the magnitude of the housing affordability crisis in Sandy Springs.

They don’t know that according to the Housing Needs Assessment, a worker earning $50,000 annually can only afford 17% of the rental apartments and 8% of the for-sale homes in the city. In addition to service and essential industry employees, teachers, nurses, first responders and other crucial professions struggle to find housing in Sandy Springs, she said.

She said apartment residents lack access to official city communications and bilingual services. She noted that local newspapers, including the Sandy Springs Reporter and the Northside Neighbor, are delivered to homeowners but not to apartments.

“We’re talking about 52% of the city [that] does not receive regular publications of what is happening now,” said Rocamora, while acknowledging the publications have digital editions.

She said the first step to improve communications would be to put metal racks with stacks of newspapers in the leasing offices of every apartment complex.

Keith Pepper, publisher of the Reporter and owner of its parent company Springs Publishing, responded to the concern after the meeting. 

“We welcome any opportunity to increase distribution and deepen our connections with the community,” said Pepper. “It goes without saying that the economics of the publishing industry make every decision to print or mail more copies one that needs to be carefully analyzed. I’m looking forward to discussing the opportunity and happy that the subcommittee recognizes the importance of a sustainable hyperlocal news product.”

Translating of city information

The 15% of city residents who are Spanish-speaking are left out with no bilingual services to enable them to engage in the city, she said.

Translation services must be offered by the city, starting with making major documents including city plans and public surveys available in Spanish. Partnerships with Spanish-speaking organizations could help, she said.

She also suggested the city make use of technology like Wordly, an online translation service that translates meetings live into Spanish.

“It’s important to have someone who can do translation so it can be read in Spanish, and also Korean and also Chinese,” Diversity and Inclusion Task Force Chair Jim Bostic said.

Sgt. Salvador Ortega of the Sandy Springs Police Department, a member of the task force, said the city has begun translating documents into Spanish particularly with the start of the pandemic. He was involved in creating translations of documents with CDC recommendations.

“I think it’s important that something as simple as translation services becomes a part of our everyday practice and protocol,” said task force member and City Clerk Raquel Gonzalez. “It’s just the culture that we have as a city so you know we’re engaging with our community members.”

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.