The housing challenges we face in Atlanta did not happen by chance. Past zoning and design policies have contributed to racial segregation and the city’s affordability crisis. We need to change how we plan and design housing policy so that our city works better for everyone who calls Atlanta home. COVID-19 and the associated economic impact, which have hit low-income communities and communities of color particularly hard, have only made this task more urgent.
This month, we released Atlanta City Design Housing, an initiative which documents how zoning and design policies have shaped Atlanta’s housing market and contributed to segregation and inequality. But it also outlines how we can improve the production and accessibility of housing by changing an outdated zoning code that was designed for exclusion. This includes ending exclusionary single-family zoning that was created as a means to exclude lower-income residents from neighborhoods; making accessory dwelling units easier to build and buy; allowing small apartment buildings to be built near transit stops; ending minimum parking requirements, which make building new housing more costly; and increasing density in high-growth areas.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ vision of One Atlanta – a city that is affordable, resilient and equitable for all – is a guiding force for this work. To help achieve this vision, Mayor Bottoms launched the One Atlanta: Housing Affordability Action Plan last year, which outlines the concrete actions the city and its partners are taking to create and preserve 20,000 affordable homes by 2026 and leverage $1 billion in investments for housing affordability. Achieving these ambitious goals requires changing how we approach housing and development in Atlanta.
While Atlanta’s population has surged over the past few decades and the region is expected to grow by another 3 million people by 2050, making us one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country, our population density is half of what it was in the 1940s. Today, Atlanta is the 316th most-densely populated city in the U.S. Population surge without flexible and adaptive design means more people end up fighting over fewer units and drive up the cost of housing.
Currently, nearly 60% of our city is limited to single-family homes, forcing multi-family housing to be built only in a very small part of the city. The current zoning also limits the ability for the city to add subtle, more-affordable housing, like small apartment buildings and basement apartments, throughout the city. Continued growth can allow Atlanta to become a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible city to live in, but only if we thoughtfully and proactively change how we approach it.
The design of a city can uplift communities and provide opportunity for all residents, or it can be built to ensure that some residents reap the economic benefits of a city while others are excluded from that economy. Making Atlanta a more equitable city will mean unwinding the existing structures that were designed to exclude, and working together to build new policies that promote Mayor Bottoms’ vision of One Atlanta.
We have a collective opportunity to change the course of Atlanta’s history and set the city on a path toward inclusion instead of exclusion. Atlanta City Design Housing charts that pathway. We have a chance to build a better future, but we can only build it better if we build it together.
Tim Keane is commissioner of Atlanta’s Office of City Planning. Terri Lee is the City of Atlanta’s chief housing officer.
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