By Sean Keenan

On Sept. 4, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church hosted the quarterly Atlanta Regional Housing Forum, where two four-person panels comprised of major players in development, architecture, real estate investment, and sustainability — all avowed affordable housing advocates — discussed how the region could produce and preserve more affordable residences.

The problems are clear: Atlanta’s affordable housing stock is waning and being replaced with increasingly expensive developments, and the cost of living is rising while income inequality is becoming more extreme. Identifying the best possible solutions, though, depends on who you ask.

Suggestions from the panelists last Tuesday ran the gamut of innovative avenues, from constructing co-living spaces and micro-homes more mainstream ideas for developing more middle housing.

Often called “missing middle housing,” due to its rarity, middle housing has been described by Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel as “the middle ground between single-family houses and multistory apartments.” It can come in the form of duplexes, quads, and other higher-density communities — smaller homes at lower costs than conventional single-family living, essentially. After all, the logic goes, making more use of project sites provides greater opportunities to foster cheaper living.

Overall, it seemed the forum’s discussions revolved around a single theme: Think small.

Atlanta is staring down the barrel of a serious population boom that could double the city’s headcount over the next two decades, according to Census projections. If local leaders aim to accommodate the influx — and, ideally, keep displacement to a minimum — creating what many call “tiny homes” and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) is a must, experts have said. 

Wesley Brooks, Atlanta Habitat for Humanity’s vice president of housing and neighborhood engagement, said last week at the forum that many of the organization’s homes sit on lots that could welcome the construction of ADUs, which could optimize property values while providing new homes for people on lower incomes.

Brooks also said that, years ago, the nonprofit “didn’t play well” with some of the communities it’s built and renovated homes in. The organization would build or repair a house and then leave while surrounding areas withered. “That’s changed,” he followed. “When we come in next to a burned-out house, we’re going to try to buy it.”

Another hot topic at the forum was shared living, a housing model that entails chunking up traditional homes into rental units to help cut down on costs.

Atticus LeBlanc, founder of co-housing facilitator PadSplit, admitted, “No one wants to live in a shared space for the rest of their life,” but offering the option allows people another, cheaper alternative to single-family living. He likened his organization’s model, which links people to rooms in shared residences, to rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft.

“There’s no difference,” he said. “You’re still getting into the back of a stranger’s car”—or house, in this case—”but now, the model assures you that the driver is background checked and so on. Times change. So should our housing solutions.”

The goal, LeBlanc said, is to “create a platform not unlike Airbnb,” but on a longer-term scale. Asked by an audience member about how to preserve older, smaller housing, architecture firm Kronberg Wall founder and CEO Eric Kronberg chimed in: “The best way to preserve a small house is to build another or two on the lot… create a little community to keep the house intact.”

Carrying on the ‘think small’ attitude, MicroLife Institute executive director Will Johnston steered attention to the tiny home developer’s recent Clarkston project, The Cottages on Vaughan. The development, which he said was slated to break ground later that day, endeavors to produce an eight-unit community with homes spanning between 250 and 500 square feet.

Like LeBlanc with co-living spaces, Johnston acknowledged that living in a so-called tiny house is not for everyone, but interest in that kind of construction, he said, is rapidly on the rise and beneficial for people who don’t want to break the bank when buying, say, a starter home.

And though these methods of bolstering the region’s affordable housing stock may seem novel and potentially game-changing, there’s still the matter of how to pay for it all. Panelists hashed out how to get creative about funding the production and preservation of cheaper housing.

“To fuel that, we have to find innovative capital,” said John O’Callaghan, president of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, which develops affordable housing. “We have to find new subsidy sources, [such as] the bond program that Invest Atlanta has done, the Housing Opportunity Bond. Absent that, some of our multi-family projects wouldn’t have happened.”

It’s also crucial to capitalize on private funding, such the nearly $1 million in grants and other support the Rockefeller Foundation is gifting the City of Atlanta to help boost economic development in underserved areas. Atlanta is now the second U.S. city to participate in the organization’s Opportunity Zone Community Capacity Building Initiative.

It might be too soon to say whether the Opportunity Zone model — part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that identifies areas that have been historically underserved and are in need of an economic boost — is a good fit for Atlanta, said Will Lambe, director of capital solutions for Enterprise Community Partners. “Judgement of Opportunity Zones has been premature,” he said, adding, “Not much has really happened yet.”

Opportunity Zones allow private developers to get tax credits for developing affordable housing in certain areas, and more than 82,000 Atlantans live in them.

Metro Atlanta could also benefit from more use of land trusts, said Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust. The model allows landowners to enlist organizations to take ownership or partial control of property to ensure it can maintain affordability for the long haul.

The next quarterly Atlanta Regional Housing Forum will be scheduled in coming months.

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