How can Decatur fix its affordable housing problem?

The rendering for a new mixed-use complex on West Trinity Place in Decatur, which is under construction.

Credit: Cousins Properties

Credit: Cousins Properties

The rendering for a new mixed-use complex on West Trinity Place in Decatur, which is under construction.

It’s no secret the city of Decatur has a shortage of affordable housing. That was the conclusion of the city’s own report, released earlier this year, which detailed 23 recommendations for how to make Decatur easier to afford.

While a new policy risks leaving out some lower-income earners who make a living in Decatur, the city hopes this step will make some apartments and homes more affordable to middle-income workers.

In a part of metro Atlanta where just 4% of the 26,000 residents both live and work in the city, Decatur officials have set stricter rules for developers in an effort to address the affordability problem.

A policy passed last month requires developers to set aside 10% of apartments or homes as “affordable” units, based on the area median income of the Atlanta area. City officials agree the new ordinance is just one piece of the puzzle for fixing the affordability issues that plague Decatur and much of the metro Atlanta area.

Decatur’s “inclusionary zoning” mandate requires that 10% of new apartments be reserved for people who make less than 80% of the area median income, which is about $83,000 a year for a family of four in metro Atlanta. That means only households earning less than $66,160 would qualify for the new “affordable” units.

Rents at the new Modera Decatur development will average $3,000.

Credit: Courtesy/Mill Creek Residential

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Credit: Courtesy/Mill Creek Residential

Under the city’s pricing guidelines, the maximum rent for a one-bedroom apartment would be $1,158 a month. Currently, the median monthly rent in Decatur is nearly $1,800, according to the city’s affordable housing task force report, which was written by a group of residents, developers and officials. The median rent across metro Atlanta is $1,500, according to Zillow.

For new condos and houses being sold, 10% must be set aside for buyers who earn less than 120% of the area median income, or roughly $100,000 for a four-person household. The maximum cost for a three-bedroom home or condo would be $310,000, according to the city’s guidelines.

As Decatur’s population has grown over the past several years, so have the prices of its single-family homes. Houses in the city currently sell for an average of about $667,000, compared to the average metro-wide home price of $320,000, according to the task force report.

While the city’s population grew by 30% since 2010 and saw a boom in development around the downtown corridor, that growth has largely catered to higher-income individuals.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett noted that for many public sector workers, including teachers and police officers, who want to live in Decatur, “we have very little to offer in terms of affordability, in terms of that missing middle.” She said the new policy had broad support from residents and city commissioners, and is one part of a larger mission to address the rising cost of living.

Georgia State University law professor Courtney Anderson said the city’s zoning policy is a good move, but still excludes lower-income folks who make less than 80% of the area median income, like many city employees and service industry workers.

“Affordable housing is such a pervasive crisis in Decatur, and in every city in America, that any type of step to create affordable housing is definitely the right step to take,” said Anderson, who studies affordable housing, adding that “there will definitely be people who are lower income ... who will not be positively impacted by the law.”

Garrett noted that the Decatur Housing Authority offers hundreds of units around the city for people making less than 60% of the area median income. For example, the housing authority opened dozens of new, one- and two-bedroom apartments in Oakhurst last year with rents ranging from $625 to $925 a month. The mayor said there is a waiting list for those units.

Decatur resident Sherry Siclair, who was a part of the affordable housing task force, said she has personally seen housing prices go up in her neighborhood and around the city as development increased over the last several years. She is supportive of the new inclusionary zoning policy, but wants the city to do more to protect longtime residents and rein in future development.

“They should have done it long ago,” Siclair said of the new mandate.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett. Courtesy City of Decatur

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Mandated “inclusionary zoning” is fairly uncommon in the region. The city of Atlanta mandated developers include affordable units in certain areas around the Beltline, and Brookhaven included a workforce housing requirement in its 2018 zoning rewrite.

But it may be a while before the effects of Decatur’s new policy become clear. It only applies to new projects approved after the policy went into effect in late July.

For example, developers recently announced plans for a high-end, eight-story apartment complex in downtown Decatur. Construction is starting this month, but because it was approved before July, it is not required to include units at reduced rates. Developers say the average rent in the building will be nearly $3,000 a month.

No workforce housing units have been built in Brookhaven as a direct result of the its new policy, city spokesman Burke Brennan said. Several developments in the city that are under construction or starting construction soon were approved before the policy was passed.

Decatur’s affordable housing task force report listed a wide range of recommendations for the city, including the inclusionary zoning measure. Garrett said the next step is enacting policies to protect Decatur’s existing affordable housing stock, which is mostly made up of older buildings, through possible property tax abatements.

Anderson said governments can also work to expand housing choice voucher programs in desirable neighborhoods and low-income housing tax credit programs.

The task force also recommended the city sufficiently finance its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, include more incentives for developers to build affordable housing and create a rental assistance program.

“There is a lot of community support,” Garrett said, “for trying to open up the door for more economic diversity in the city of Decatur.”

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Others recommendations from the Decatur Affordable Housing Task Force:

  • Fund and build the capacity of the Decatur Land Trust
  • Create a rental assistance program
  • Allow more duplexes and triplexes
  • Dedicate a portion of the city’s general fund to affordable housing