As housing affordability deteriorates, what will it take for Atlanta to make better use of residential space?

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When Atlanta Civic Circle reported on metro housing leaders’ visions for denser, more diverse and, therefore, more affordable residential communities this time last year, it gave public officials plenty to think about and even explicit legislative proposals.

So what has changed since then? Not much, housing experts said this week.

“We certainly haven’t seen any improvement in regulation or use of existing resources that I’ve seen – certainly not to the extent necessary to keep pace with demand,” Atticus LeBlanc, CEO of the start-up PadSplit, a management service for landlords renting rooms to multiple tenants, says Atlanta Civic Circle Last week.

Our March 2021 article highlighted several ways to make better use of existing urban space to develop affordable housing as the metro population explodes: updating the City of Atlanta’s zoning code to more efficiently use residential land ; cracking down on negligent landlords who let city buildings crumble; and using innovative construction, like modular housing, to produce affordable housing in communities where it is shrinking at an alarming rate.

Today, Atlanta is losing affordable housing much faster than it is producing. And with building and land costs skyrocketing, the city can’t just claw its way out of the affordable housing crisis. Meanwhile, the metropolitan area is dotted with dilapidated and abandoned private homes ready for rehabilitation, the city government sits on hundreds of acres of land ready for development, and most of the city’s residential land is zoned. exclusively for single-family homes.

As our story concluded last year: “Atlanta’s potential for affordability and lodging is endless, it seems. We just need to fundamentally restructure how we think about planning, building, and using what we have.

NIMBY opposition

Neighborhood opposition is a formidable obstacle to updating zoning laws to allow for greater housing density on residential lots. Overcoming this will require political will and skill.

“If we don’t have new [city planning]commissioner, and a mayor and city council that goes out there and educates and promotes infill hell and the need to change our current zoning policies,” community activist Lauren Welsh warned, the affordability crisis of the housing in Atlanta will only get worse. Welsh is the executive director of the Little Five Points Community Improvement District and co-founder of the planning blog ThreadATL.

If Atlanta’s elected officials and developers don’t jump in to remove barriers to expanding the city’s affordable housing stock, city living will become out of reach for many working-class people, like teachers, the police and fire department, who keep the city going. .

“Things have only gotten worse,” Place Properties CEO Cecil Phillips said of housing affordability. “The city needs to triple or quadruple its efforts to find solutions to the accessibility crisis,” the developer said.

Legislation proposed by City Council to increase land use density died in committee last year, then progressive city planning czar Tim Keane, who crafted the zoning code overhaul, left in February for a job in Boise, Idaho, casting doubt on the city’s ability to mitigate the crisis.

The election of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and several new city council members, however, has revived hopes that the city will show more leadership. “It’s crucial that we replace Tim Keane with an equally progressive planning chief, who will champion policies that densify the city near public transit, expand housing choices and change our zoning so that Atlanta developments really support our equity and climate action goals,” said ThreadATL Co-Founder Darin Givens Atlanta Civic Circle in an email.

But even a strong, forward-thinking planning commissioner would be crippled if the new mayor, city council and other city leaders didn’t support their planning ambitions, Givens said.

The search for Keane’s replacement is still ongoing, planning department spokeswoman Paula Owens said, adding the department had no information on whether the post could go to the commissioner. by interim Janide Sidifall, former MARTA planning expert.

Atlanta city design

The goals that Keane and other planners set out in the design of the city of Atlanta already give the city council a map to adopt the necessary policy changes. The large-scale vision for Atlanta’s future sets legislative goals for long overdue updates to the city’s land use and zoning policies.

City Councilman Amir Farokhi built on the City of Atlanta’s design to introduce legislation last July to make the city more welcoming to secondary suites (ADUs), including garage apartments and condos. small backyard homes, and to eliminate minimum parking space requirements in most residential developments.

If just 15 to 20 percent of metro Atlanta single-family homes added secondary suites, it would create between 11,000 and 13,000 new affordable homes, Keane told Atlanta Civic Circle last year.

Additionally, these new units would not require any government subsidies like other affordable developments do.

But the city’s zoning committee filed Farokhi’s proposal in December after fierce opposition from most of Atlanta’s 25 neighborhood planning units.

Farokhi declined to speculate on whether the Atlanta City Council would pass legislation to update the city’s zoning. “How we manage and plan our growth will determine whether we remain accessible and economically competitive for the next 50 years,” he said in an email.

But as Atlanta’s population grows and real estate prices soar, time is running out.

Phillips thinks cracking down on negligent investment property owners would free up more homes for people who need them, explaining that investors are buying distressed real estate in rapidly developing areas and sitting on it until that the value increases enough to reverse it.

He proposed $1,000-a-day fines for landlords who refuse to fix run-down properties, adding that once they owe $60,000, the city should seize and turn the property into permanent affordable housing.

So far, the city council has not acted on this proposal. Engaging voters and municipal leaders in actions that would upset the current status quo is easier said than done.

“The only way around that hurdle is to find a planning commissioner who can inspire people to come up with a vision for a better style of growth in Atlanta and who can win hearts and minds,” Givens said.

Modular options

As affordable zoning legislation stalls in city council, developers may seek affordable housing options such as modular construction, where homes are pre-built on an assembly line like gingerbread houses, then delivered to site fully built on flatbed trucks.

Place Properties specializes in modular construction. “There is not a penny of difference in cost. It’s actually cheaper, given that the construction costs are so much lower,” Phillips said. Atlanta Civic Circle Last year.

In Atlanta, Place Properties currently only produces small single-family homes, but Phillips said the company has begun testing multi-family modular development in Florida. It could offer multi-family modular homes in Atlanta by next year, he added.

Phillips is exploring even cheaper modular options for multi-family residences that might be affordable for hourly workers or other working-class people. “You design the floor plans that… have a bed and a bath, but a modified kitchen – probably just a microwave and a mini-fridge – and then you put a community kitchen on each floor and skimp on the amenities,” he said. .

The idea is to create affordable housing for the workforce in high-priced areas, such as Buckhead, Midtown and Downtown, Phillips said. “Every region suffers from an incredible lack of affordable housing supply – and what’s new coming online in every market is, by definition, not affordable.”

Atlanta urgently needs innovative alternatives to building new state-subsidized housing, given the growing demand and dwindling supply of affordable options. “We can’t subsidize our way out of the affordable housing crisis,” Givens said.

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