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A new Biden administration plan to bolster the country’s housing stock tees up Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and city councilmembers to revive efforts to boost residential density and, in effect, foster housing affordability. But will elected officials, who have missed the mark on this front before, seize the opportunity?
The Housing Supply Action Plan—which seeks “to ease the burden of housing costs over time, by boosting the supply of quality housing in every community”—endeavors to create more homes nationwide in part by incentivizing state and local governments to build more units—and closer together—and preserve existing ones, because, as scholars, politicians, and urbanists have insisted, more housing means more housing affordability.
One way to do that: Dangle the carrot of federal transportation department grants in front of jurisdictions willing to reform their zoning and land-use policies to spur more dense and diverse housing development.
In short, if a government wants new roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike lanes, or transit routes, then becoming more welcoming to, say, accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—like a tiny home in the backyard or an apartment over the garage—or small- to midsize multifamily buildings could improve its chances of securing a grant.
Though details are scant, Biden’s plan promises to “reward jurisdictions that have reformed zoning and land-use policies with higher scores in certain federal grant processes, for the first time at scale.”
Ernest Brown, the board chair for the YIMBY Action nonprofit, said the Biden administration’s ambitions “clearly link housing to other issues that are nominally priorities in Atlanta, most notably increased transit investment.”
“Liberalizing land use to get the homes we need is good in and of itself, but for the folks who want to see more light rail and other transit investments, the administration’s position makes clear we’ll stand a better chance of securing federal support if we have land use plans consistent with the density needed to support high-capacity transportation solutions,” he said.
Atlanta city councilmembers and planning department leaders have tried to update the city’s outdated zoning code to incorporate ADUs, smaller apartment complexes, and more kinds of housing in residential neighborhoods that are designated exclusively for single-family development, but to no avail.
To fully harness the potential of the president’s plan, those officials need to better market the benefits of increasing density to constituents and drive home how housing and transportation investments go hand in hand, urban design experts told Atlanta Civic Circle on Friday.
The Biden administration’s new housing plan better positions the city’s elected officials to make the pitch to residents for denser zoning, said Eric Kronberg, a principal at Kronberg Urbanists + Architects and a member of advocacy group, Neighbors for More Neighbors Metro Atlanta (a part of the YIMBY Action network).
“We can make our city more inclusive and more wonderful,” he said, by upzoning—amending land-use designations to be more efficient with property—and allowing for denser types of housing in suburban-style communities. “And we’d be way better positioned to receive federal dollars to build the Beltline even faster, and build out more trails and transit [around it]. That would get people excited.”
Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi’s proposal last year to allow more ADUs and eliminate parking space minimums at most apartment and condo developments faltered last year because of opposition from a “vocal minority” of constituents with NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitudes, Kronberg said.
“I expect that local officials often understand what needs to be done, but don’t see a pathway forward that combines pushing more housing choices and staying in office,” he added.
Kronberg also said there was a lack of adequate “cheerleading” from higher-ups at City Hall, Kronberg said.
To make a dent in Atlanta’s housing affordability crisis, Kronberg said, Mayor Andre Dickens needs to back and promote zoning and land-use reform efforts, which stalled when city planning department commissioner Tim Keane left for a job in Boise, ID, in February.
Keane’s departure effectively backburnered Farokhi’s efforts to pass zoning legislation allowing greater density, particularly around MARTA, but a pregressive new city planning chief could help revive that effort.
“Obviously, we need to build more housing, and that should happen in a lot of different ways,” Farokhi told Atlanta Civic Circle. “It makes sense, given we have limited land and land costs, to position as much of that housing as possible near either transit lines or in walkable parts of town.”
“The Biden administration’s program and position is testament that the housing pressures we’re feeling here in Atlanta are true across the country,” Farokhi said. “We need to work together as a city to have an inclusive conversation about how we’re going to add more people to the city in the next few years.”