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Atlanta’s Department of City Planning has been architecting an updated zoning code that, in short, endeavors to make better use of intown space — in the pursuit of housing affordability — but not at the expense of the way things are.

When Atlanta planning officials and urban design experts say the city needs to be more welcoming to dense residential development, it’s not the death knell of our single-family communities, they insist. That’s an all-too-common misconception among NIMBYists — “not in my backyard” types — who think proposed shifts to Atlanta’s zoning code could spell the end of an era of quaint suburban-style communities.

“I think parts of the city — Buckhead, in particular — saw this [zoning reform] as some kind of attack on single-family,” said Atlanta planning commissioner Tim Keane during a virtual panel discussion hosted Wednesday by the planning department and WABE’s Stephannie Stokes. “It’s not that at all. This is the opposite of that. This is reinforcing the importance of maintaining what makes Atlanta Atlanta, which includes single-family.”

One of the main thrusts of the Atlanta City Design Housing Initiative is to normalize — or at least provide opportunities for — the creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — additional units at existing residences, such as a tiny home in the backyard or an apartment over the garage.

Today, roughly 60 percent of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family housing. Joshua Humphries, the city’s director of housing and community development, said unlocking just a small chunk of that land for ADU development could be a massive win for housing affordability.

“We estimate that around 11,500 new housing units would be created if 15 percent of current single-family properties added an ADU,” he said during the Wednesday discussion.

To put that in perspective, the city’s recently passed $100 million affordable housing bond program, Keane said, “will generate something like 3,000 units.”

“We’re going to spend public money to subsidize housing for people making 80 to 100 percent of the area median income,” he said, nodding to the more expensive “affordable” units the bond program is expected to create. “There’s no way we should have to do that.”

In an effort to realize those density goals, the planning department is crafting a series of ordinance proposals, which will go before all of the city’s Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs) in the next few months.

One of those ordinances, if approved by the Atlanta City Council, would allow an ADU to be attached to a property’s main dwelling — at half the size of the primary residence — and increase detached ADU height limits to allow for 2nd-floor and above-garage units.

“It’s important to understand that this is not something new and radical, but something that we allowed for a long time and somewhat recently stopped allowing, and still exists in many areas,” said Humphries.

The ordinance would also “expand the total units allowance in R5” — zones that currently allow ADUs or duplexes, but not both — to allow up to three families to live on a single-family property.

Additionally, combating concerns of some ADU and density critics and skeptics, the proposal would forbid ADUs from being used as short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs. 

Other ordinance proposals center around the intersection of housing affordability and transportation: One would slim down or remove minimum parking requirements for developments promising affordable housing, and the other would allow for denser development near transit stations, which would reduce car dependency, Humphries said. 

It remains to be seen what hurdles officials will have to overcome in order to realize these proposals, and some public leaders or candidates for public office are at odds over whether these changes can be made citywide, or if a piecemeal approach would be best to cater to certain neighborhoods.  

But as Atlanta’s housing crisis worsens — exacerbated by the pandemic — time is of the essence, and officials are tasked with pushing policies to boost affordability sooner than later.

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