Today, roughly 60% of the city is zoned exclusively for detached homes, making Atlanta the least densely populated major city in the country. It’s nothing to be proud of or to protect. It means we’ve basically “pulled up the ladder” for people who need to live near jobs, services, schools, and more. It also means we’re making an inefficient use of our investments in infrastructure, such as public transit, which thrive on urban populations.
The good news is that the city’s planning department is undergoing a years-long effort to carefully update zoning rules, helping to “create a city that is designed for everyone.” It’s overdue, but welcome: the last overhaul to city zoning was in 1985. The overall plan is to increase Atlanta’s density in subtle and nuanced ways that make sense for unique neighborhoods.
Being thoughtful and intentional about residential growth goes is important: the multi-county region is one of the top five fastest growing in the U.S. When it comes to the impact of this on the city, we need to ensure equitable benefits.
In a city where many residents are renters, why give owners the loudest voice?
The AJC ran a troubling op-ed recently written by a state Republican leader, Bob Irvin, who voiced opposition to zoning changes. He emphasizes the interests of owners of detached homes, arguing that rezoning will produce “crowded” and “overwhelming” housing.
His arguments suggest that homeowners are deserving of a level of protection, through zoning regulations, that people who can’t afford large spaces aren’t.
Homeowners like Mr. Irvin often have the loudest voices, even when they don’t represent the majority. According to census data from 2015-2019, most occupied homes in the city were rentals. Are we listening to Atlantans, or only homeowners?
If anyone needs their voice boosted it’s people who stand to lose the most: lower income Atlantans, especially renters, prone to displacement when housing supply doesn’t match demand; and people who’ve moved to the region for jobs but are forced to live far from destinations due to lack of affordable housing nearby.
Loosening government mandates on parking is a good thing
Another part of the rezoning proposal that’s getting pushback is the reduction of government mandated parking minimums.
This shouldn’t be controversial. Ending required minimums doesn’t mean disallowing new parking. What it means: if a builder believes they can successfully lease or sell a property with a low amount of parking included, or that they can engage in a shared-parking plan with an existing parking facility nearby, the law will allow it.
Basically, it gives developers more freedom while also saving them money, given that parking decks can cost upwards of $25,000 per-space to build, depending on the location.
More flexible parking requirements mean that parking takes up less space in our city, freeing land for other uses. In the past few years, many cities in North America have abolished parking minimums. It’s no longer a radical idea, just a good one.
More neighbors doesn’t mean more traffic
The worsening of car traffic due to increased development is a common fear. But when new households are added to a dense environment, they won’t generate car traffic at the same rate as homes would in a more sprawling, less-urban place.
That’s because public transit becomes more efficient to use when people live closer to bus stops and train stations. And walking and cycling trips can replace car trips when people are closer to destinations.
Less-dense development, where large swaths of detached homes sprawl outward, will generate a lot of car traffic. Zoning our neighborhoods in a way that’s more traditionally urban is a way of providing greater options for moving around.
Zoning for SFH neighborhoods exacerbates inequality
Current zoning is too often a tool used by privileged Atlanta home owners to prevent different races and classes from living on the same street and within the same school district. It’s a way for wealthy residents to ensure that the only new neighbors they’ll have will be ones who can afford a downpayment on a detached home, just like them.
And along with the car ownership that’s fairly required for lower-density areas, these downpayments to zoning-enforced, detached houses become a de facto entry fee to a club of privilege, denying others access to the city through less pricey housing options such as duplexes, triplexes and other rentals.
Multiple studies have found that the City of Atlanta ranks consistently high on income inequality between Black and white residents. It seems safe to assume that single-family-only zoning is playing a part in exacerbating that inequality.
Voice your support for a city for everyone
We need residents to stand up and support diversity of housing in our communities and offer a counterpoint to fear-mongering about Atlanta’s zoning update. Attend your neighborhood meeting, your NPU meeting, talk to your neighbors, and stress the importance of housing for all ages and all backgrounds.
We also need our local politicians to give full support to the kinds of housing initiatives that foster affordability and equity even in the face of pushback from privileged homeowners. Recent statements from Mayor Bottoms about scaling down the zoning proposals are alarming. And comments from her challenger, Felicia Moore, about the need to vet a proposal that has been years in the making with significant community engagement is disingenuous. It seems that privilege is already having some success in flexing its muscle against needed changes.
Atlanta leaders are eager to invoke phrases like “world-class city” and “the city too busy to hate” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “the beloved community” when describing our shared goals. Now is the time for the action that earns those words.