Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston calls it “single-family exclusionary zoning” — a series of city design laws that perpetuates racial and socioeconomic disparities by mandating, in certain places, suburban-style development. 

In Charlotte, like in Atlanta, much of the city’s residential areas are zoned for single-family development only, meaning you can’t build denser than what you might find in a quaint subdivision in, say, Johns Creek or Alpharetta.

Winston, during Wednesday’s Atlanta Regional Housing Forum webinar, said he’s part of the cohort of local lawmakers trying to change that — striving to abolish restrictive single-family-only zoning laws that hamper the push for housing affordability. 

On June 21, Charlotte leaders adopted the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Development Plan, a roadmap for future city design that paves the way for denser development in single-family zones. 

Should the plan’s policies be codified, they would allow the likes of duplexes and triplexes in areas that currently only allow single-family homes. 

Is that something the City of Atlanta, which is working on its own zoning code overhaul, could or should do? Atlanta planning commissioner Tim Keane thinks so. 

Keane, who admits he’s “too optimistic about things,” told Atlanta Civic Circle he can envision an Atlanta in which no residential parcel is restricted to one type of housing. Sure, there will be neighborhoods that maintain, to an extent, the suburban feel that they’ve enjoyed for generations, but metro Atlanta’s growth, he said, will force residents to shift their perspectives regarding housing density and diversity.

Keane said, even people in neighborhoods like Buckhead, which is dotted with single-family communities around its pockets of luxury high-rises, “understand how important housing affordability is” — and will be — as the population swells. 

There’s a popular belief that opening up the zoning code to more diverse types of developments will result in single-family homes being leveled to make way for skyscraping affordable housing complexes. That’s not the case, Keane said, and it’s misunderstandings like that that make it so difficult to reform zoning laws. 

“We can’t solve all our affordability problems with conventional apartments,” he added, noting that, sometimes, duplexes, triplexes, accessory dwelling units or smaller apartment complexes are just what a community needs to embrace residents of all walks of life. 

Still, Atlanta, like Charlotte, faces an uphill battle, stuck now with single-family zoning laws that, Keane said, “basically outlawed [housing] diversity a generation ago.” It will take substantial activism, education, community engagement and leadership to right the wrongs that are inscribed in the city’s books today.

Atlanta Civic Circle asked the top candidates for Atlanta mayor if or how they’d do away with single-family-only zoning. 

City Councilman Antonio Brown said he’s a “huge proponent of diverse and mixed-use communities, as long as they fit into the overall aesthetic and historic character of the community.”

“I also believe it’s incredibly important that a community has input regarding these potential zoning changes,” he added. “It’s imperative that these decisions are not being made without community input.”

City Councilman Andre Dickens, noting Atlanta won’t overcome its housing affordability challenges unless “the next mayor uplifts every community,” said, “Rather than subtracting single-family zoning from the housing code, I pledge to add more diverse and accessible housing options so that Atlantans at every income level can afford to live in our city.”

“I will require the Atlanta Housing Authority to build upon the hundreds of acres of vacant land that haven’t seen development in over a decade and direct new investment to blighted properties,” Dickens added.

Council President Felicia Moore, attorney Sharon Gay and ex-Mayor Kasim Reed did not send responses to Atlanta Civic Circle’s questions by press time, and this story will be updated as comments are provided. 

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  1. Developers in Atlanta are already building thousands of new apartments along major thoroughfares like Piedmont, Peachtree, Cheshire Bridge, which are good locations for them. Are those developers being required to include affordable units? If not, why not? And if yes, what percentage? I’ve heard other mayoral candidates agree with Councilman Dickens that the city already owns hundreds of acres of land that should be used for affordable housing before disrupting existing intown neighborhoods, and I agree. Who really benefits from rezoning Atlanta’s historic neighborhoods and which developers are pushing for that? We’ve already seen developers tear down existing affordable housing in gentrifying areas to build luxury six or seven-figure condominiums; they’d love to rezone more intown neighborhoods so they can make more money doing that, not affordable housing. Why doesn’t the City require the commercial owners of surface parking lots, which are a blight, to build housing there in areas whose zoning already allows for that? If transit is a concern, why isn’t the City expanding the reach and effectiveness of MARTA? And given the massive impact of the pandemic on remote work and commercial real estate, why not focus on the areas already zoned for high-density development and put more housing there instead of office space? The City is basing its projections on old data. Eliminating current residential zoning feels like a developer scam under the pretext of affordable housing.

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