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Updating Atlanta’s zoning for a more equitable growth

This guest post was written by two staffers from the City of Atlanta planning department: Joshua Humphries, Director of Housing and Community Development, and Leah LaRue, Assistant Director, Neighborhood Planning. We’ve invited them to tell us about the department’s new initiative to update zoning.

Atlanta is changing. Since 2010 the City has seen an increase of almost 85,000 residents, with the population of Atlanta surpassing 500,000 in 2019. This population growth has critical implications for housing and infrastructure in the City. 

In Atlanta City Design Housing (ACDH), we outline a policy agenda that charts a path towards designing the City for all residents that want to call Atlanta home. Today in Atlanta, we have several problems that are preventing current and prospective residents from achieving equitable outcomes; from racial disparities in housing, to the lack of affordable housing, to displacement,  to a regulatory framework that limits residents’ housing choices.

Low density
Since 1940, the boundaries of the City of Atlanta have grown while the population density has dropped.

Through researching the history of the City and the contemporary patterns of inequality, we find that land-use policies that restrict density and foster racial and economic segregation are one of the most critical problems facing Atlanta.

We believe remedies that change the fundamental planning framework of our City, foremost among them zoning rules, are necessary if we are to create a city that is designed for everyone. In Minneapolis, the campaign to end exclusionary single-family zoning adopted the slogan ‘Neighbors for More Neighbors’ to express the need for abundant housing. In Atlanta City Design Housing, we  are also proposing to increase the density of our City, in subtle and nuanced ways that make sense for the unique neighborhoods of our City, so that we can have a city that works for everyone. 

land-use policies that restrict density and foster racial and economic segregation are one of the most critical problems facing Atlanta.

In the City of Atlanta, many policies related to zoning are decided at the neighborhood level through Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs). NPUs are the backbone of civic engagement in Atlanta, and the official mechanism for neighborhoods to provide recommendations to the City. The NPUs are where we collectively chart our course for the city we want to become.  Because of this, we believe it is important it is to engage with every NPU in the city about ACDH, to talk through the tough questions we face about the state of housing in Atlanta and how we make Atlanta work better for everyone. 

For large apartment buildings, the cost to add the required number of parking spots can be as costly as the price to build a new unit. This cost is almost always relayed to the renter through the cost of rent or through additional monthly parking fees. Currently, the City of Atlanta requires much of this parking and is a direct contributor to the added costs. Removing parking minimums for apartment buildings could help make projects more feasible and keep costs lower.

The policies recommended in ACDH are the result of more than two years of public engagement and research beginning in 2018 and running through our book club last fall on Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Time after time, our public engagement pushed us to look deeper into Atlanta’s history and propose policies designed specifically for Atlanta.

One example is our proposal to allow an additional dwelling unit in residential areas citywide. Atlanta allowed for a range of secondary dwelling units across the city for much of its early history, but slowly reduced the flexibility of these areas to exclusively allow single-family housing in the second half of the 20th century. The restriction against secondary dwelling units to exclusively single-family homes, made neighborhoods less diverse and more exclusive by removing other options like basements apartments from these residential areas.

These policies have resulted in rapidly rising housing costs, lack of market-creating affordable options, and a city designed to economically segregate residents. Allowing secondary dwellings again in all of Atlanta’s residential neighborhoods would help to generate more affordable options throughout the city while giving homeowners a chance to financially benefit from the city’s population growth. 

Image from the ACD Housing story map

How to be engaged with the zoning initiative

Throughout January, we visited each of the city’s 25 NPUs to explain the policy proposals to residents, learn about the concerns community members have, and provide an opportunity for dialogue around the policy agenda. And on February 11th, we will have an NPU University course on ACD Housing where we will host an in-depth discussion on the initiative. You can RSVP for the virtual event here

In addition to NPU engagement, we’ll be partnering with neighborhood groups and community organizations to host public sessions on the project over the next several months. If you are interested in hosting a conversation on ACD Housing, you can submit a request here

In the City of Atlanta, the policy proposals we need to make our City more equitable and affordable cannot be accomplished without the support of the residents who participate in their NPUs. There are several ways that you can get involved to support the policy agenda outlined in ACD Housing.

First, explore the ACD Housing story map to learn about the history of Atlanta and the discriminatory policies of the past and present that are shaping our City.

Second, attend your NPU meetings to add your voice to the conversation. You can share handouts with your neighbors and speak with residents who have not yet gotten involved in the planning process. And third, register for the NPU University course on February 11th, 2021, or attend a community conversation to connect with residents across the City and hear from City officials about the ACD Housing policy agenda. 

The story of Atlanta has long been one of economic and racial exclusion. If we choose, we can change that story and chart a new course. We have the opportunity to create a more inclusive Atlanta, but we can only get there if we go together.

Note from ThreadATL: do you have thoughts on this post and the zoning initiative? Share them in the comments below.