Atlanta has all the tools it needs to be a dense, world-class metropolis, but the city’s leaders aren’t properly utilizing them in a way that could one day accommodate the ongoing population boom and boost housing affordability. As housing experts and city officials will tell you, Atlanta today has plenty of construction-ready land, dilapidated and abandoned houses desperately in need of rehabilitation and homes that, some might say, are far too large for their inhabitants.
So where do we go from here? In short, the city begs for density, and efforts to create such compactness abound. But we won’t get there without considerable changes to municipal regulations and a drastic shift in the way developers operate.
The City of Atlanta’s planning department, as part of an ongoing overhaul of its zoning code, is working to make accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — think a tiny home in the backyard or an apartment over the garage — more welcome within city limits. Officials say that kind of change could free up some 60 percent of intown property for true density, meaning more stuff on less land. Planning department czar Tim Keane, in an interview with Atlanta Civic Circle, said that expanding ADU potential is “a central part of what we are doing.”
Today, there are about 2,500 ADUs in Atlanta’s single-family communities. In Keane’s ideal world, though, every single-family parcel in the city could accommodate an ADU. “If we only got to something like 15 to 20 percent of the single-family homes with ADUs, that would add 11,000 to 13,000 new housing units in the city,” Keane said. And that wouldn’t even require government subsidy like so many other affordable housing developments do.
Dan Immergluck, a Georgia State University urban studies professor, told ACC, “I applaud the city’s effort to reduce zoning barriers, including permitting ADUs more broadly.” He said that, especially in affluent areas like Buckhead and Ansley Park, “there is a need for more options in housing development,” later adding, “ideally, the city will create programs to combine efforts to expand ADUs with measures to combine them with housing vouchers and other subsidies so that some of the new rental units might serve those with the greatest housing needs.”
“Hopefully, this effort can be effective, in spite of already significant pushback from more affluent communities,” Immergluck said.
No doubt, not everyone is convinced that ADUs are the best way to tackle the city’s housing affordability crisis, or even an approach that could work in what many consider NIMBY — “not in my backyard” — communities. The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, for instance, has voiced criticism of ADUs. Even Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore is skeptical of the idea, saying she thinks ADUs sharing properties with expensive homes could cost a “pretty penny” and potentially allow for an influx of “a bunch of short-term rentals,” according to Atlanta Intown reporting.
Keane, however, said that, when the Atlanta City Council crafts legislation to further the planning department’s density goals, “We will propose that you cannot use an accessory dwelling unit for short-term rentals, so take that off the table.” He added, “These units, just by their sheer size and the fact that they’re an accessory, they’ll be more affordable than any other unit in the neighborhood.”
Cecil Phillips, CEO of developer Place Properties also believes ADUs are crucial to producing much-needed affordable housing in the city. Phillips’ operation practices what’s called “volumetric modular construction.” Imagine a gingerbread house built on an assembly line, with wiring, utility lines and storage space, and then delivered to a site on the back of a flatbed truck and dropped into place via crane.
“It’s not a mobile home,” Phillips said in an interview with ACC. “You can’t move it once it’s placed, and there’s not a dime’s worth of difference in cost. In fact, it’s cheaper, considering construction costs are so much lower.”
So why hasn’t modular construction met the mainstream? Phillips said there’s a stigma attached to homes that aren’t built conventionally, but the development model should be normalized. “If the markets could build affordable housing, they would, but they can’t, and so they don’t,” Phillips said. “This process can make housing more affordable and more plentiful.”
Enter Jessica Lewis, the self-proclaimed “Shipping Container Lady” and head of Mobu Enterprises, a company that retrofits shipping crates as housing that, she said, can “solve most housing challenges” in Atlanta and beyond.
Mobu’s homes sell for under $80,000 — and, sometimes, even under $40,000 — and can span around 300 square feet to upwards of 2,000 square feet, depending upon how many crates crews put together. “I want people to see this as a valuable option for ending homelessness and producing affordable housing,” Lewis said in an interview.
Like Phillips’, Lewis’ project cuts down on construction costs and endeavors to create for-sale homes affordable to lower-income families. Keane said Atlanta has been permitting shipping containers as residential structures for a while. “Often, they’re done beautifully and interestingly,” he said. “The more we can use them, the better.” However, that approach is “not widespread in its use, as there isn’t the demand or interest.”
Of course, new construction isn’t the only way to provide housing for new Atlantans and longtime residents in need. The city, however, should beef up repercussions for property owners who sit on land as the usually uninhabitable homes atop it fall into further disrepair, Phillips said. “The city should hire inspectors and send them out to affected neighborhoods,” he said. “We know where they are. There are enough dilapidated houses in this city that, if the city not just showed its teeth, but actually bit, the slumlords would get the message. ‘We either walk away from these slums or bring them up to code.’”
Phillips suggests local lawmakers create a program that fines such property owners as much as $1,000 a day until they bring these homes up to code. If they don’t, and they rack up a tab of, say, $60,000, the city should foreclose upon those homes and then turn them into permanent affordable housing.
Atticus LeBlanc, founder and CEO of PadSplit, a start-up that provides tenant management services to homeowners who opt to chunk up their houses as rental units, said, “Zoning and regulation are the easiest barrier to overcome. You know there is space available. The cheapest housing you can possibly build is that which is already built. We should use the rooms that are in that housing to house people.”
Atlanta’s potential for affordability and accommodation is endless, it seems. We just need to fundamentally restructure the way we think about planning, building and using what we’ve got.
(Header image, via Lydia Mayfield Photography: A Place Properties home being dropped onto a foundation in English Avenue.)