How do families fit into Atlanta’s growing urban landscape?

This guest post was written by Johanna DeCotis Smith, an urbanist, and a bicycle/transit advocate in Atlanta

The Atlanta region has long been heralded as an affordable place to live, with ample opportunities for employment and family-friendly living. Unsurprisingly, projections indicate that the region will grow by 2.5 million people over the next 20 years, with the City of Atlanta tripling its current population.

The Atlanta City Design, recently released by the Office of City Planning, explores how current residents and city officials want to see this growth accommodated. New residents will continue to arrive, no question. Population growth in the City of Atlanta proper exploded between 2010 and 2016, outpacing all other areas of the region. As a city resident, I have openly welcomed these newcomers and the increased density housing that accommodates them, over the past 6 years; now, as we expect our first child, how families fit into this increasingly urban landscape has been on the top of my mind.

Apartments in Old Fourth Ward
Apartments in Old Fourth Ward (now completed).

Our family intends to stay in the city proper as it grows, but does the city intend to keep us? According to the contents of the City Design, the answer seems to be “yes.” The report begins by discussing the need for accommodating growth, and it outlines concrete ideas for achieving complementary goals beyond pure, unfettered development as well. Complementary goals include innovative housing types that increase affordability while creating more playful areas in the city, engaging both children and adults. These measures don’t exclusively target one specific demographic, but they do provide benefits that make the city a more welcoming place to raise a family.

In terms of housing for families, however, one need look no further than BeltLine-adjacent neighborhoods during the past 6 years to see that these types of considerations have not been a focus up to this point.

Texas-doughnut apartments with luxury pricing geared toward young pros

For anyone living in Atlanta since 2010, especially the eastern and central areas of the City, development driven by the population growth outlined in the report has been visible in the form of “luxury” apartment complexes. Often accompanied by ground-level retail space and wrapped around a parking deck like a doughnut (and aptly called Texas Doughnuts), these structures have consisted mostly of studio, one bedroom, and two bedroom apartments and boast amenities such as dedicated parking, fitness facilities, pools, and even dog grooming facilities. In 2016, approximately 8,200 brand new apartments came on the market in the Metro Atlanta area, and in the same year, luxury apartment complexes were awarded tax incentives worth more than $7.2 million. Overall, the Atlanta City Design states that between 2016 and 2017, the City of Atlanta permitted $4 billion in construction, a further testament to growth.

The City needs apartments, to be sure, but the Texas Doughnut luxury apartment development model provides a viable housing option to only a sliver of the population. In 2010, at 24 years old, I found myself living in one such apartment complex in Old Fourth Ward. The 600 sq. ft. apartment provided more than enough space for me to settle in to city life, just as the developers of the building had intended. I was part of their target demographic — a young, single, professional Millennial who could afford some semblance of “luxury intown living” and who wanted to be close to the action.

Larger apartment units are needed for families

Fitting a family into a similar apartment, however, is not as easy, and is often not the intention in these developments. “Developers are skeptical of building larger units, and cities have become obsessed with attracting ‘young professionals,’ with no plan to retain them as they grow and age,” explains Bradley Calvert, an architect and Georgia Tech City and Regional Planning graduate raising a family here in Atlanta. Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former chief planner and now a global consultant, agrees that intervention on the part of municipalities is crucial in ensuring the construction of family-friendly housing. As things stand, he said, “the only ones getting housing in the majority of downtowns out there are singles and seniors. If you want families downtown — which many downtown [community plans] say they do — it has to start with homes that can actually fit families. You usually have to regulate it, and so it starts with policy.”

Toderian is correct that the City of Atlanta wants to increase the diversity of residents in terms of income, race, and age according to the Atlanta City Design, especially since increasing density will be necessary to maintain quality of life and cost of living as the population grows. For families, extra space is a consideration, obviously, though not the only one. Transit accessibility, walkability, proximity to good schools and daycare centers, parks, and other family resources, such as pediatricians, take on greater importance than saltwater pools or fitness rooms.

Image from Atlanta City Design book
Image from Atlanta City Design book

Currently, the City of Atlanta does not regulate the number of larger bedroom units to be built as part of new multi-family construction, though the Atlanta City Design outlines various ideas to promote the development of family-friendly housing, such as incentivizing the development of affordable homes, decoupling parking from rent, allowing construction of accessory dwelling units, and maintaining adequate housing supply at all price points to encourage affordability. Additionally, housing ordinances have been both passed in the City Council and proposed to work toward affordability goals.

Atlantans and our city officials want families to stay, and we have solid ideas that would encourage this to happen. As we consider our upcoming city elections, however, it is up to us to choose thoughtfully and hold our elected officials accountable to ensure that families do fit into Atlanta’s growing urban landscape.

This guest post was written by Johanna DeCotis Smith, an urbanist, and a bicycle/transit advocate in AtlantaSaveSave

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