The city of Atlanta’s protracted search for a new planning department leader has stalled important affordable housing initiatives, but Mayor Andre Dickens says an announcement about filling the role is imminent. The job has been vacant since former planning commissioner Tim Keane departed for a Boise, Idaho, planning job in February.
“We interviewed lots of people and picked one,” Dickens told Atlanta Civic Circle in a text Wednesday. Word on who he’ll tap is forthcoming, he said, though the exact date is unclear.
The impending news has Atlanta’s urban planning wonks atwitter, since Keane’s departure nearly seven months ago put a pin in his goals of using zoning to densify and diversify housing in areas that have historically been zoned only for single-family development.
The consensus among planning experts is that expanding housing stock is one key component to making communities more affordable, and one of the best ways to do that is to make more efficient use of residential land.
As Atlanta grows, city leaders need to act fast, say local urbanists and elected officials, to ensure that the people who work here can also afford to live here and get around town—even without a car.
City Councilmember Amir Farokhi tried to do just that last year by proposing an ordinance that would have made the city more welcoming to accessory dwelling units—such as garage apartments or tiny homes in backyards—and eliminated parking space minimums at most residential developments.
Farokhi’s proposal failed in December, fought by most of Atlanta’s 25 neighborhood planning units and some municipal leaders.
Farokhi and Keane’s aim to increase housing density and affordability have essentially been tabled ever since, according to Ernest Brown, the Atlanta-based board chair for the national YIMBY Action nonprofit and an executive at Kaiser Permanente.
“The city was in the midst of a robust conversation about creating diverse housing [last year], and everyone I’ve spoken to on council or on staff has suggested that conversation has been on a shelf since Tim left,” he said in an email. “Hopefully, the new person picks it up.”
Abundant Housing Atlanta, YIMBY Action’s local arm, has been pushing city leaders to fast-track the search for a new housing czar. In a recent email blast to supporters, the group warned that Keane’s long-overdue plan to overhaul the city’s dated zoning code—starting with legislation like Farokhi’s—fell by the wayside when the former planning commissioner left.
The Atlanta planning department on Aug. 25 cancelled its first Zoning Rewrite Workshop, scheduled for Aug. 30, saying it wants to wait until the new planning commissioner is in place.
Since then, Abundant Housing Atlanta has solicited nearly 600 letters of support from Atlantans, accusing Dickens of “dragging his feet on this crucial position, forcing the planning department to twiddle their thumbs and continue down a path of the status quo.”
Density-focused legislation could make a comeback this year, Farokhi said Wednesday, depending on whom Dickens taps to be the planning department leader. “I want to meet the new commissioner first,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle in a text.
But even a progressive new planning chief can’t spur zoning changes that fosters more affordable housing options without some serious political muscle, said Matthew Garbett, co-founder of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL.
“The mayor and city council can support the planning commissioner and embrace a vision for less car dependence and more housing options, or they can pretend to support a vision they don’t really endorse,” he said. “That’s probably why the [hiring] process has taken so long.”
Darin Givens, also a ThreadATL co-founder, wants the new planning chief to look to cities like Gainesville, Fla., and Minneapolis for inspiration. Both municipalities recently adopted policies to end single-family-only zoning restrictions, commonly considered suburban-style.
The vast majority of the nearly 2,500 new residential units built in Minneapolis during the first six months of this year have been in multifamily developments, according to the Washington Post.
YIMBY Action’s Brown added: “We’ve seen double-digit increases in rent and home prices in Atlanta over the last few years. The city needs a housing abundance strategy that aligns with our transportation needs, protects our greenspace, and addresses longstanding inequities between our neighborhoods and residents.”
“Our land-use plans are a critical piece of that strategy, and a planning commissioner is needed to guide this major body of work,” he said.
Still, even a forward-thinking planning commissioner, city council, and mayor would face challenges in real estate investor- and landlord-friendly Georgia.
State lawmakers last year, after folding language from a failed bill into other legislation, passed a law that made it more difficult for municipalities to increase residential density.
It’s unlikely the November election will substantially change the legislature’s makeup. That means new hurdles to any Atlanta zoning modernization efforts could emerge during the next legislative session.
This story was updated on Sept. 7 at 10:14 p.m. to indicate anti-upzoning state legislation ultimately became law.