The city of Atlanta’s new planning czar, Jahnee Prince, says single-family zoning isn’t going anywhere, despite the city’s affordable housing crisis.

One month into her tenure as city planning commissioner, it’s not yet clear how Prince plans to use zoning to expand scarce affordable housing stock in the upcoming overhaul of Atlanta’s outdated zoning code. The massive undertaking kicked off under her predecessor, Tim Keane. 

Prince, who joined the city from corporate law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, is charged with updating the 1980s-era code, which still restricts most residential intown property to single-family homes. 

Mayor Andre Dickens tapped Prince as city planning commissioner in early September, and Wednesday marked her first full month on the job, although the Atlanta City Council has not yet confirmed her to the post. That’s expected to happen on Nov. 7.

Housing experts agree that boosting residential density is critical to ameliorating the city’s housing affordability crisis, by allowing more accessory dwelling units—think backyard tiny homes or garage apartments—along with small apartment buildings, duplexes, and other housing that makes more efficient use of a lot’s square footage.

Prince’s predecessor, Keane, championed expanding residential density on land long-reserved for standalone houses before he left for a job as Boise, Idaho’s planning chief in February—just a month after Dickens became Atlanta’s new mayor. 

Keane even set out to do away entirely with restrictive single-family-only zoning—a suburban-style approach to city design that reduces land-use—to foster housing affordability in Atlanta, which is infamous for its income inequality. 

Prince’s office has declined multiple interview requests from Atlanta Civic Circle, saying she should be sworn in first. But in a Wednesday email, Prince said, “We will not be eliminating our single-family zoning districts.”

Prince did not respond to follow-up questions. Dickens’ office also has not responded to Atlanta Civic Circle’s queries about whether Prince was hired to carry out Keane’s progressive plan for the zoning code overhaul or hew more closely to the status quo.

Prince offered an early indicator at an Oct. 25 city council meeting where councilmembers gave her an initial greenlight as the new planning czar.

“I didn’t want to come here to reinvent the wheel,” Prince said on Tuesday at the council’s Community Development and Human Services Committee meeting.

“I want to see these visions come to life,” she added, alluding to Atlanta’s 2021 Comprehensive Development Plan, which sets the framework for its urban design, land-use, and transportation goals.

But it’s still anyone’s guess how Prince plans to accomplish the comprehensive plan’s broader, density-centric goals, which are laid out in the Atlanta City Design Housing plan.

City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland pushed Prince to articulate her planning vision at the Oct. 25 committee meeting. To accommodate Atlanta’s fast-expanding population, he said, “We have to get more dense; we have to grow.”

Prince responded: “The zoning [rewrite] ordinance is going to allow us to take a deeper dive on what [development] happens and where—and if we’re going to fit more people into the city, we need to look street by street, block by block, and find the right places to do that.”

City leaders need to consider “which neighborhoods want growth, and where they want growth,” added Keyetta Holmes, the planning department’s zoning and development director.

“Once we give residents the opportunity to opine on this, there will be regulations that allow that growth and will allow the different housing types and different zoning types, and all those kinds of things,” Holmes said.

But leaving Atlanta’s residential zoning code update to the current residents has some local urbanists concerned. Without progressive leadership, they say,  people with NIMBY (not in my backyard) mindsets can gain too much influence. (Pushback from local neighborhood planning units effectively killed proposals last year to increase residential density and reduce car dependency.)

When Dickens told Buckhead residents he had no intention of nixing single-family zoning at an Oct. 24 town hall meeting, it perturbed some housing advocates. 

No one wants to bulldoze suburban-style neighborhoods in Buckhead to create rows of high-rise housing projects, said Matt Garbett, the co-founder of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL.  

Garbett and other progressive urbanists say they just want Atlanta to permit more residential density and diversity than current single-family zoning regulations allow—and are still waiting for the new planning chief to weigh in.

If a family of four can live in a house, Garbett wondered, why can’t four unrelated tenants share a quadplex? 

“We’re not even having an honest discussion about the rules,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle in evident frustration. “That shows how far away we are from having real conversations about affordable housing, while creating a faux boogeyman of density.”

The Atlanta City Planning Department will kick off a series of public workshops on Nov. 29 for the zoning code rewrite, which could take three to five years. By next month, the office’s goals will hopefully be clearer.

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