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New affordable housing district proves city could beef up inclusionary zoning policies

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Developers in some Westside Atlanta neighborhoods will soon have to abide by new rules regarding affordable housing when reimagining property in the fast-evolving area. 

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council adopted legislation that creates the “Westside Park Affordable Workforce Housing District,” which includes neighborhoods encompassing the soon-to-be-completed Westside Quarry Park — such as Grove Park, Center Hill and Carey Park — as well as the massive property tech giant Microsoft plans to revamp

Firms that develop within the new district will be beholden to rules mirroring the city’s inclusionary zoning policies, which require developers to earmark a number of new residential units for affordable housing — or pay an “in-lieu fee” to opt out of the requirements. 

The newly passed ordinance, however, takes things a few steps further than the existing inclusionary zoning program, proving Atlanta leaders are capable of beefing up their affordable housing policies. 

First of all, unlike the inclusionary zoning ordinance passed in 2017, which was championed by Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens, the new “Westside Park Affordable Workforce Housing Overlay District” mandates that new rentals and for-sale housing developments must include some affordable housing — or write a check to the city for the in-lieu fee. The years-old ordinance, which affects communities around the Beltline and other parts of the Westside, only applies to rentals. 

Additionally, the new ordinance gives developers another option for setting aside units for affordable housing. Like the circa-2017 inclusionary zoning ordinance, the one passed on Monday says firms can set aside 15 percent of their residential units to be priced for households making 80 percent or less than the area median income (AMI), 10 percent of their units if they price them at or below 60 percent of the AMI or buy out of the requirements. It also allows developers to reserve 5 percent of their rentals at 30 percent of the AMI or less. 

Though 5 percent might be a small chunk of a large project, housing experts have long said that Atlanta is in most dire need of units priced for people earning 50 percent of the AMI or less. So, pricing apartments for families earning even less than that all but ensures at least some legacy residents avoid being displaced.

Matthew Cardinale, a member of Neighborhood Planning Unit-K, which neighbors the new overlay district, and the founding editor of Atlanta Progressive News, said his community was instrumental in getting that 30-percent AMI option injected into the legislation. (Atlanta City Councilman Dustin Hillis, author of the new ordinance, thanked “the neighborhoods and NPUs for their involvement and input, as well as the Department of City Planning and former Chief Housing Officer Terri Lee” in a statement celebrating his legislation’s passage.) 

“Our inclusionary zoning policies have really been exclusionary,” Cardinale told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview. “I would rather have fewer units for people who really need them than more units for people who probably have other market options.” 

Cardinale added that the way the older ordinance was written puts developers who want to help Atlanta’s most vulnerable people at a disadvantage when building residences. “If a developer wants to get down this low in terms of deep affordability,” he said, “they should be put on the same footing as other developers” who use the 60- and 80-percent AMI options. 

Cardinale also said he thinks city councilmembers should go back and amend the original inclusionary zoning policies to allow developers to set aside fewer units for affordable housing, but at a price point that benefits the city’s most marginalized citizens. 

Or, he suggested, the city could enact a “3-3-3” system, which would have developers setting aside 3 percent of their units for households making 80 percent of the AMI, 3 percent for those making 60 percent of the AMI and 3 percent for those making 30 percent of the AMI or less. 

Councilman Dickens, the spear’s head of the city’s first inclusionary zoning ordinance, said in an interview that he’s open to expanding such policies, but doing so to the extent that he and other affordable housing advocates would like is easier said than done. 

In an ideal world, Dickens said, Atlanta would have citywide inclusionary zoning requirements — and with set-aside options that would benefit very-low-income residents — but “that becomes more possible when the state legislature becomes more progressive.”

His 2017 proposal came to fruition, he said, because he could show officials at the municipal and state levels that development of the impacted areas — like “the beachfront property we created with the Beltline — would provide a public benefit. 

Whether Dickens or other local leaders can one day convince state officials to better prioritize affordable housing initiatives remains to be seen.

(Header image, via Microsoft: A view of the Bellwood Quarry and the property that the tech giant plans to reimagine.)

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