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 of food for thought—and even some explicit legislative proposals.
So what’s 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 degree necessary to keep pace with demand,” Atticus LeBlanc, the CEO of start-up PadSplit, a management service for homeowners renting rooms to multiple tenants, told Atlanta Civic Circle last week.
Our March 2021 story spotlighted several ways to better use existing urban space to expand affordable housing as the metro population booms: updating the city of Atlanta’s zoning code to make more efficient use of residential land; cracking down on neglectful property owners who allow intown buildings to fall into disrepair; and using innovative construction, like modular housing, to produce affordable housing in communities where it’s shrinking at an alarming rate.
Today, Atlanta loses affordable housing far faster than it produces it. And with construction and land costs skyrocketing, the city can’t just build its way out of the affordable housing crisis. Meanwhile, the metro area is dotted with dilapidated and abandoned private houses ripe for rehabilitation, the city government is sitting on hundreds of acres of development-ready land, and most of the residential land in town is zoned exclusively for single-family homes.
As our story last year concluded: “Atlanta’s potential for affordability and accomodation is endless, it seems. We just need to fundamentally restructure the way we think about planning, building, and using what we’ve got.”
Neighborhood opposition poses a formidable obstacle to updating zoning laws to allow denser housing on residential land. Overcoming that will take political will—and skill.
“If we don’t have a new [city planning] commissioner, and a mayor and city council who go out there and educate and promote the hell out of infill and the need to change our current zoning policies,” community activist Lauren Welsh warned, Atlanta’s housing affordability crisis will only worsen. Welsh is the executive director of the Little Five Points Community Improvement District and a co-founder of urbanist blog ThreadATL.
If Atlanta’s elected officials and developers don’t jump to break down barriers to expanding the city’s affordable housing stock, intown living will become out of reach for the many working-class people, like teachers, police, and firefighters, who make the city tick.
“Things have only gotten worse,” Place Properties CEO Cecil Phillips said of housing access. “The city needs to triple or quadruple its efforts to address solutions to the affordability crisis,” the developer said.
Proposed city council legislation to boost land-use density died in committee last year, and 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 ameliorate 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 a similarly progressive planning chief—one who’ll champion policies that densify the city near transit, expand housing choices, and tweak our zoning so that Atlanta’s developments truly support our goals for equity and climate action,” ThreadATL co-founder Darin Givens told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email.
But even a strong, forward-thinking city planning commissioner would be hamstrung if the new mayor, city council, and other municipal leaders don’t support their planning ambitions, Givens said.
The search for Keane’s replacement is still ongoing, city planning department spokesperson Paula Owens said, adding that the department had no information on whether the job could go to interim commissioner Janide Sidifall, MARTA’s former planning expert.
Atlanta City Design
The goals that Keane and other planning officials laid out in the Atlanta City Design already give the city council a map for enacting needed policy changes. The wide-ranging vision for Atlanta’s future maps out legislative goals for long-overdue updates to the city’s land-use and zoning policies.
City Councilmember Amir Farokhi drew on the Atlanta City Design to introduce legislation last July to make the city more welcoming to accessory dwelling units (ADUs), including garage apartments and backyard tiny homes,and to eliminate minimum requirements for parking spaces at most residential developments.
If just 15% to 20% of metro Atlanta’s single-family homes added accessory dwellings, it would create between 11,000 and 13,000 new affordable housing units, Keane told Atlanta Civic Circle last year.
What’s more, these new units wouldn’t require any public subsidy the way other affordable development does.
But the city’s zoning committee in December tabled Farokhi’s proposal after fierce opposition from most of Atlanta’s 25 neighborhood planning units.
Farokhi declined to speculate on whether the Atlanta city council will 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 swells and housing prices spiral ever-higher, time is of the essence..
Phillips thinks cracking down on negligent investment property owners would free up more housing for people who need it, explaining that investors buy up distressed real estate in fast-developing areas and sit on it until the value rises enough to flip it.
He’s proposed $1,000-a-day fines for owners who refuse to fix up blighted properties, adding that once they owe $60,000 the city should foreclose and turn the property into permanent affordable housing.
So far, the city council has not taken action on this proposal. Getting constituents and city leaders on board with measures which 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 fire people up about a vision for a better style of growth in Atlanta—and who can win over hearts and minds,” Givens said.
While affordable zoning legislation is stalled at city council, developers can pursue affordable housing options such as modular construction, where homes are pre-built on an assembly line like gingerbread houses, then delivered to the site fully built on flatbed trucks.
Place Properties specializes in modular construction. “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference in cost. In fact, it’s cheaper, considering construction costs are so much lower,” Phillips told Atlanta Civic Circle last year.
In Atlanta, Place Properties currently only produces small, single-family homes, but Phillips said the company has started testing multifamily modular development in Florida. It could offer multifamily modular homes in Atlanta by next year, he added.
Phillips is exploring even cheaper modular options for multifamily residences that could be affordable for hourly workers, or other working-class people. “You design the floor plans that … have one bed and one bathroom, but a modified kitchen—probably just a microwave and mini-fridge—and then you put a community kitchen on each floor, and you skimp on the amenities,” he said.
The idea is to create affordable workforce housing in high-priced areas, such as Buckhead, Midtown and downtown, Phillips said. “Each area has an incredible lack of supply of affordable housing—and the new stuff coming online in each market is, by definition, not affordable.”
Atlanta urgently needs innovative alternatives to publicly subsidized, new housing construction, given the escalating demand and shrinking supply of affordable options. “We can’t subsidize our way out of the affordable housing crisis,” Givens said.