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Atlanta’s new planning czar, Jahnee Prince, faces a monumental challenge. She’s charged with rewriting the city’s 40-year-old zoning code, the rulebook on how Atlanta can be built, in a way that accommodates the city’s burgeoning population—and at a time when affordable housing is especially hard to come by.
Mayor Andre Dickens tapped Prince to lead the city’s planning department in September. She stepped into the role at a pivotal time—as Atlanta grapples with unparalleled income inequality and a housing crisis that’s left lower-income residents scrambling for accessible houses and apartments.
As rent prices and property values skyrocket, housing experts have advocated for modernizing the city’s zoning code to make smarter use of residential land—for instance, by encouraging denser development and reducing car dependency.
The planning department’s ATL Zoning 2.0 initiative, which will culminate in new zoning ordinances determining how the city’s landscape evolves for years to come, is being informed by a series of community outreach, including a public workshop being held on Tuesday night. (Click here for involvement opportunities.)
Atlanta Civic Circle interviewed Prince about her plans for the planning department and the city at large. Read the transcript of our 15-minute conversation below.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Atlanta Civic Circle: Most of Atlanta’s residential property is zoned exclusively for single-family development. I feel like the word “density” has kind of become this boogeyman for people living in suburban-style communities, like parts of Buckhead. But I think that’s a misconception—that densifying land is a threat to single-family neighborhoods. I hoped we could dissect why that is.
Why do you think some folks see, say, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and smaller apartment buildings as an affront to their way of life? And talk to me about what your role is in addressing all that.
Jahnee Prince: I don’t think they see [density] as an affront to their way of life, but for most people, their home is the largest investment they’re ever going to make. Right? And so they’re concerned about anything that could impact its value.
And do you think that there’s a common belief or even evidence indicating property values are negatively impacted by, say, a neighbor creating an ADU?
Oh my gosh, I don’t think so. But it’s such a nuanced question. I think that we definitely need more housing. And we’ve got to look for where to put it.
More housing is one of many components of addressing this affordability crisis we’re faced with. And Joshua Humphries, the mayor’s director of housing and community development told me last year that upzoning in these single-family areas could unlock a lot of that land and boost the housing stock. He estimated it could create 12,000 new residences, if just 15% of those single-family-only zones allowed ADUs. Is that part of your mission?
Well, I haven’t done the math on it, so I’m gonna trust Josh, since he’s our housing director. But yeah, we’ve got to find more places for more housing. And there are a lot of places that are zoned single-family that maybe could be rezoned for denser uses—maybe along some of our [commercial] corridors, maybe closer to some of our transit stations. This is the thing that you go look for street-by-street, block-by-block.
City Councilmember Amir Farokhi tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation last year that would do what you’re alluding to—create density around transit stations and reduce car dependency by getting rid of parking space requirements. Talk me through your mission there. How do you actually accomplish that by way of zoning reform?
I wasn’t here when he proposed that, so I can’t really speak to that. But with zoning, somebody’s got to ask for it; somebody’s got to apply for it; somebody’s got to be ready to build that housing. So what we have to do to be ready for that—for our builders and developers to be able to do those things—is we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right tools.
Do we have the right zoning districts in which they can do this? I’m looking at things like the medium-density mixed-use districts, and I want to make sure that they’re written correctly to meet our needs. And I think we’re going to have to revisit those zoning districts and make sure we’ve got the right tools. And honestly, we are rewriting the zoning ordinance, but I want to work on those zoning districts first, before we do the whole zoning ordinance at once.
But how much of the work has been done already? I mean, we’ve got the city’s Comprehensive Development Plan and the Atlanta City Design Housing Plan that have sort of mapped out what the previous planning department’s administration wanted to do. Are we starting from scratch? Or are you still using those as building blocks?
No; no way [is the planning department starting from scratch]. We’ve got the City Design document; we’ve got the CDP … These come from the people in the city of Atlanta. That’s what the planning processes are all about. That’s what community engagement is all about. People tell us what they want for the future of their city. And we write a plan to get it for them.
Now, we do have to update the CDP this year, and we also have to rewrite our zoning ordinance because we have to have the tools to build all this housing, meaning we have to have the right zoning districts. They have to be written the right way. The devil’s in the details. We have to have the locations for this, right? So the land-use planning process that’s part of the CDP update is super important, because that spells out the location. So first, you’ve got the tools with the zoning ordinance. And second, you’ve got the locations with the CDP update.
You touch on how these plans were created thanks in part to community input, so let’s talk about NIMBYism (the “not in my backyard” mindset that has stunted upzoning in the past). How much do you think that comes into play when you’re endeavoring to rewrite this code that was drafted in the 1980s? At the end of the day, you’re going to have to tick some people off, right? At what point do you have to say, “You have to let the experts make some big decisions?” You’re talking about going neighborhood to neighborhood to ask what people want, but when do you have to tell people they may have to make concessions in the pursuit of housing affordability?
I was a planning consultant for eight years, and I went from place to place doing planning, writing basically comprehensive plans for cities and counties. And I would come in, and I would explain to them that they know their city and I know city planning. Together, we’re going to write a great plan. And people would tell me what they wanted, I’d tell my team, and we would write a plan to get them what they wanted.
But what if they know what they want, but not what their community needs, especially when it comes to the mayor’s goal of producing and preserving 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026? Doesn’t it require some sort of calculus to determine how much say stakeholders should have, if it differs from what experts say is needed?
We’ve got to give people the facts, like how much our population is growing and where it’s growing—and how much housing is needed. And tell them things like, This may be the best place to locate it, because it’s adjacent to transit, it’s on a major transit corridor. When you sit down with people and give them the information, they can figure it out.
I’ve had planning projects where I would have 100 people in the room during a community engagement meeting, and I would break them out into groups, and they would almost always come up with the same future scenarios: Okay, we’re going to add some housing over here and we want some stores over here, and we think we should probably want this road—and, you know, people get it. You have got to give our citizens some credit.
Sure, but, in trying to inform people, especially with such a dense topic, there are bound to be folks who are confused or overwhelmed by the subject matter. There’s definitely this too-common conception that increasing density is synonymous with bulldozing single-family homes and erecting skyscrapers. And that’s not true.
And here’s the thing you know: we’ve got a lot of places where we can fit more density without bulldozing anybody’s neighborhood. I live in East Lake. I live in a single-family house. Nobody’s going to bulldoze my neighborhood. Maybe along the arterial roads nearby, if that’s a good spot for some apartments.
But if your neighbor wanted to build an ADU in the backyard, should you have a say in that?
Not in a lot of single-family zones here. I don’t know about your property, but not for most. I think your predecessor, Tim Keane, scared a lot of people by saying he wanted to get rid of single-family-only zoning. But they didn’t hear the “only” part. Is there a universe in which people can make their own decisions as to what’s on their property?
I guess I’m not understanding your question.
Some 60% of residential land in Atlanta is zoned exclusively for single-family development, and part of Keane’s mission was to allow—not force—ADUs or small-sized apartment complexes, or things like that. But there’s pushback from the neighborhood planning units. How much say should concerned neighbors have in what happens down the block from them? Why are we in a position where small- and mid-sized apartment complexes can’t be built in so many of these neighborhoods? And is it your goal to make that possible?
I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. So [in theory] there’s a rezoning application, and the neighbors come out and they’re opposed to it? And you’re asking how much the city council should listen to them?
I’m wondering how much is your role here? Because we could rezone properties individually—but I think part of rewriting the entire zoning code is determining what to do with just vast swaths of the city.
We’re not going to be proactively rezoning anything. As rezoning applications come in, yeah, we’re gonna consider them in light of what’s in the Comprehensive Development Plan, and the comprehensive development plan is based on input from the community.
Okay, so with regards to the mayor’s goal of creating and preserving housing affordability, where do you fit in there? What is your approach to rewriting the zoning code in a way that makes Atlanta more inclusive?
Let’s go back to the affordable housing piece. We have a whole lot [of affordable housing units] going in. A lot is happening. The main thing that I’ve got to do is pave the way for things to get built. So I’ve got to straighten out our permitting and get our permitting tax down. Super important. We have to make sure we have the zoning districts that allow this. We’ve got to make sure when a builder or developer comes to me and wants to develop apartments, that they have the right zoning districts on the books that they can choose from that fit what they’re going to build, right?
It can’t all be high-rises. Some of it’s got to be low-rises. Some of it’s going to be triplexes and quadruplexes, and we need to have the right zoning for that missing middle housing. And then our comprehensive development plan has to show the locations where those things will go.
So people need to come out and participate in our planning processes. And we do our best to get those meetings out to the public and create lots of opportunities for people to give their input. I’m a true believer in the planning process. I like it when people come out and tell me what they want the future of their community to be. And then I want to write them up and get it for them.
Help me paint a picture of how you envision the Atlanta of tomorrow. If you and I took a helicopter tour of the city ten years from now, what does it look like? Triplexes and quadruplexes are pretty rare here. Is that something you want more prevalent? What does the Atlanta of the future look like?
Over time, it will change. As more people move in, we have got to find more places for them to live. No change happens overnight.
But help me visualize it. If you walk through Atlanta years from now, is it taller? Is it denser?
That’s what’s going to happen. We’ve got some places that have no limits on density. Downtown, for example. I think the places where it’s most allowed, it will get a lot denser, and then other places will slowly get more dense, mostly along our commercial corridors.