How the design of your neighborhood could become a campaign issue this year

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Neighborhood zoning might not be something Atlantans think about every day. But for some voters, the issue could be top of mind when they select the city’s next mayor this November.

In this election year, zoning — the complex but critical set of local rules that dictate what can be built on what pieces of land — could become a central campaign issue in the races for Atlanta mayor and City Council. While combatting the rise in violent crime remains atop candidates’ platforms, a series of new zoning proposals aimed at increasing the supply and affordability of housing in Atlanta is beginning to get the attention of more voters.

Within City Hall, conversations about zoning reform under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration have been ongoing for months. Earlier this month, measures were introduced in the City Council that would, if passed:

  • Rezone over 2,000 properties near MARTA stations to allow them to include more units and become small apartment buildings;
  • Permit more types of “accessory dwelling units,” also know as in-law apartments or carriage houses, which can be basement units or detached structures that can be rented out or sold;
  • Eliminate all residential parking mandates from the city’s code, meaning developers would no longer be legally required to build driveways to single-family homes or parking decks for multi-family projects.
ExploreMore details: What Atlanta's new zoning proposals would – and wouldn’t – do

Immediately, feedback flooded in on both sides of the issue — from homeowners concerned the proposals will disrupt the feel of Atlanta’s single-family neighborhoods, and from some residents who thought they didn’t go far enough in addressing the city’s affordability crisis and need for more density.

Now, candidates for mayor and City Council are starting to stake out differing positions on the issue, balancing concerns from neighborhood groups with the urgent need for more affordable housing.

“It’s been really difficult to watch the conversation from candidates right now being only focused on crime,” said Lauren Welsh, the co-founder of ThreadATL, an urbanism advocacy organization. “We recognize that that’s a critical issue, [but] somehow, housing and population growth have really fallen by the wayside.”

ExploreAJC voter guide to the Atlanta mayoral election

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In Atlanta, the population has increased from 420,000 to over half a million in the past 10 years. The city estimates it could grow to 1.2 million people over the next several decades. While many new apartments and condos have been built in that time, the average monthly rent now stands at over $1,600 and the typical value of a single-family home in the city is almost $500,000, according to RentCafé and Zillow.

“The status quo has to change, or we run the risk of being far too expensive for many many people to live in this city,” said Councilman Amir Farokhi, who sponsored the legislation. “Ultimately, we need to be collectively mindful of the fact that we can’t just drop the drawbridge behind us and not let any neighbors in.”

‘We mobilized the world’

Supporters of the proposed changes say they are relatively subtle tweaks to the zoning code that should be part of a larger zoning reform push.

“We have to take a step back and realize this isn’t even asking much,” Welsh said. “It’s baby steps. It’s very, very gentle. It won’t even go close to far enough.”

But residents like Gloria Cheatham are worried about the impact the changes could have on historic, single-family neighborhoods. She said she has heard from neighborhood leaders across the city who are especially worried about the component that promotes small apartment buildings within a half-mile walk of MARTA stations.

That proposal aims to address the “missing middle” housing option by allowing thousands of properties currently zoned for one or two homes to have up to four units built on them — or up to 12 units if the developer includes affordable apartments. Under current zoning guidelines, those single-family home lots in Atlanta can be as small as 0.17 of an acre.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“It’s like putting up a lightning rod for developers. This is a way that developers make money: tear down what’s there and build a lot more,” said Cheatham, the president of the Tuxedo Park Civic Association in Buckhead.

She said there may be some neighborhoods that could benefit from that change, but that rezoning every single-family property near MARTA lacks nuance. She’s also worried about possible impacts to Atlanta’s tree canopy, and said the city could add density in other areas that are already more populous.

“There’s plenty of room there to accommodate Atlanta’s population growth without messing up the neighborhoods,” she said.

Tim Keane, the city’s planning czar, has heard those concerns too. He contends that developers are already buying up historic, single-family homes across the city and replacing them with modern ones.

“Rather than tearing down houses and replacing them with a mansion for a single family, shouldn’t we consider having some small apartment buildings there?” Keane said.

Another element of the pushback from some homeowners surrounds the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan, a document the city updates every five years to guide future development. A previous draft for that plan included some more far-reaching zoning suggestions, like reducing minimum lot sizes for single-family homes. That mirrored a report the Bottoms administration released last December that also suggests the city eliminate exclusionary single-family zoning by allowing any residential property to add an extra unit.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

At a recent hearing related to the draft development plan, over 1,000 residents sent in comments opposing those ideas, totaling over 16 hours. The pushback has been organized in part by former mayoral candidate Mary Norwood, who now chairs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and is running for an open Buckhead-based City Council seat this year.

“We mobilized the world,” Cheatham said. “We sent out messages and emails to everybody we had email addresses for.”

ExploreAtlanta mayor seeks to rezone some neighborhoods to create more affordable housing

The comprehensive development plan, which is non-binding, is separate from Farokhi’s ordinances. It was revised this week to remove the provision on lot sizes. The ordinances that were recently introduced will go to the city’s Neighborhood Planning Units for feedback before going back to the City Council in the next several months.

The candidates weigh in

Debates over density and housing could continue to play out over the course of Atlanta’s election season this fall, with the mayor’s race wide open and all 15 council seats up for grabs.

“I know people who are connected to this issue who are writing candidates,” Cheatham said.

On the other side of the issue, the group Neighbors for More Neighbors - Metro Atlanta, advocating in support of the zoning changes, plans to send questionnaires and educational materials to candidates and hopes to organize a candidate forum, board chair Ernest Brown said.

The differing views among the top candidates for Atlanta mayor were on display at a recent forum in northwest Atlanta, where they were asked if they support allowing greater density in residential districts.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Councilman Antonio Brown answered “yes,” but said increasing density won’t necessarily lead to more affordable housing. Councilman Andre Dickens said he supports additional housing options and density, but not through “carte blanche” approaches.

Attorney Sharon Gay and City Council President Felicia Moore both said they support increased density, but only with neighborhood input and in areas with support from local residents. Former mayor Kasim Reed was the sole candidate to answer “no.”

“You should review projects on a case-by-case basis,” Reed said after the forum. ‘The zoning changes that they’re discussing right now put neighborhoods in too defensive of a posture. And I think we should lead from neighborhoods.”

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Virginia-Highland resident Dirk Brown, who supports the proposed zoning changes, said he will look for mayoral and City Council candidates to address zoning as part of a larger affordable housing platform.

For years, the space behind Brown’s home had no purpose other than additional backyard parking. So in 2019, he started the process of building and renting out his own “accessory dwelling unit.” With tenants now in the apartment, Brown said it brings in some additional income, and more units like it could allow more people to live in the neighborhood.

The city first permitted ADUs in much of the city several years ago, allowing homeowners like Brown to build a structure behind their house to rent out. The proposed changes would make it easier to build different types of ADUs, including units that are attached to the house like basement units or garage conversions.

“We’ve got to come up with innovative and creative ways to make the city more livable,” he said.