A bill cruising through the Georgia legislature that would add more obstacles to local rezoning initiatives could stunt efforts to ameliorate the housing crisis that has spread statewide, opponents told Atlanta Civic Circle this week.
One way to create more affordable housing is to allow greater density in residential areas, but rezoning proposals generally face stiff opposition from residents who want to protect their suburban way of life.
The Republican-sponsored House Bill 1406, which cleared a House vote on March 9 and is now working its way through the Senate, would create more obstacles by mandating additional hearings and public input opportunities before municipalities can rezone single-family properties.
If passed, HB 1406 would complicate the already arduous process of upzoning — making land available for taller or denser development, such as apartment complexes or tiny homes — according to advocacy group Neighbors for More Neighbors Metro Atlanta (N4MN), a chapter of the San Francisco-based YIMBY Action group that’s lobbying against the proposal.
“Georgia is in an insane housing crisis,” said N4MN member Eric Kronberg, principal at Kronberg Urbanists + Architects. “We’re not building nearly the housing we need in any way, shape, or form … and to make it even harder for cities to meet this need is kind of mind-boggling.”
Housing and urban planning experts have told Atlanta Civic Circle that increasing residential density is crucial to promoting housing affordability, because it’s an effective way to increase the housing stock as supply continues to lag far behind demand.
But the legislation’s authors, including state House Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, say HB 1406 merely strives for more transparency in the rezoning process.
“Simply put, individuals own the property; government does not,” Martin told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email. “And when government seeks to make a wholesale change to a zoning category, then property owners should be noticed, and their input should be taken into consideration.”
“If folks, including ‘urbanist organizations’ choose to describe providing notice, posting the property, and requiring public hearings as ‘belaboring’ the process, they may do so,” he added.
But Kronberg said the statewide zoning bill is superfluous, because safeguards — including robust community input opportunities — already exist to prevent governments from rezoning willy-nilly.
As an example, he mentioned Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi’s proposal last year to boost intown density near MARTA stations.
Farokhi, who declined to comment, pushed an ordinance to rezone residential properties located near transit stops to allow more diverse, dense types of housing, such as accessory dwelling units or small apartment buildings, in areas that historically have only allowed single-family homes.
The council’s zoning committee effectively killed the legislation in December, after most of Atlanta’s 25 neighborhood planning units voiced disapproval.
Farokhi’s more inclusive zoning ordinance was the first salvo in a battery of zoning and land-use proposals that would overhaul Atlanta’s outdated zoning code and better equip the city to house its spiking population.
Collectively, the proposals — including legislation that hasn’t yet materialized — would fulfill the housing plan piece of the city planning department’s Atlanta City Design document – a sprawling framework conceived in large part by former city planning commissioner Tim Keane, who took a job in Boise, Idaho, last month.
The demise of Farokhi’s proposals set the urban planners’ efforts back months, and Keane’s February departure added another big question mark. The city has not yet named a new planning czar, and several planning department officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Even without the additional burden of statewide regulations for local rezoning matters, Kronberg said, “It’s hard enough to get municipalities to do the right thing,” as far as fostering residential density and diversity.
Meanwhile, other states’ legislatures are taking the opposite tack and considering bills to expand restrictive local zoning rules as rents shoot upward nationally, according to a March 15 report from Pew Charitable Trusts. Rents rose faster last year than they have in the past 20 years, leaving many low- and medium-income renters priced out, the report said.
One solution is to build more housing. A North Carolina zoning bill, for instance, would allow single-family homeowners to build and rent out an accessory dwelling unit, such as an in-law apartment or backyard cottage, the report said. In Georgia, this type of construction is prohibited in most single-family communities.
Now, Martin and HB 1406’s co-sponsors have until April 4, when the legislative session ends, to get it through the state Senate and on Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk.