Several local developers and architects worry recent staff departures will stunt the Atlanta City Planning Department’s already arduous zoning and permitting processes and make it especially tough to develop affordable homes and apartments.
Today in Atlanta, developing a property entails running through an extensive checklist: If rezoning a site is necessary, developers must first ask the community, including the local neighborhood planning unit, followed by the city’s Zoning Review Board. If they need a zoning variance, they have to go through a separate approval process closely examining the intricacies of a blueprint. If a project falls in one of the city’s special districts, like the Atlanta Beltline Overlay, they need to secure a special administrative permit. In historic neighborhoods, planners must obtain a certificate of appropriateness. Then, the city ultimately decides what’s allowed. And that’s all before applying for building permits.
Amanda Rhein, who heads the Atlanta Land Trust, an affordable housing developer, said intown urban developers rely on the city planning staff “to help you navigate [those systems] and resolve conflicts.” Establishing a rapport with those employees—important to keeping projects on track, she said—is “an art that requires experience.”
“You have to be a squeaky wheel in order to get anything done,” Rhein said.
So when seasoned city planners Christian Olteanu, Nathan Brown, and Alex Deus—who together have over 26 years of planning office experience—left the department’s Office of Zoning and Development at the end of 2022, some of the people and organizations working to provide housing for Atlanta’s lower-income residents started considering taking their business elsewhere.
The Atlanta Land Trust operates exclusively within city limits, so Rhein doesn’t have that luxury. But architect Eric Kronberg does. The head of Kronberg Urbanists + Architects told fellow urban designers and builders in a letter obtained by Atlanta Civic Circle that, even though the planning department’s zoning office has many employees, those three resignations “will have a significant impact on the department’s ability to function.” Olteanu, Brown, and Deus were known workhorses, capable of shepherding complex projects over bureaucratic hurdles.
“This level of internal staff departure and dysfunctionality makes us significantly concerned with the viability of our business model,” Kronberg said in an email, noting that about 80% of his firm’s work is in Atlanta.
“We plan to start actively shifting to take on more work in other jurisdictions because the risk of permitting collapse”—crippling dysfunction at a crucial point in developments—“is just too high in Atlanta,” he added.
Olteanu, who’d been Atlanta’s assistant director of land development, left the planning department for work in the private sector after 15 years at City Hall.
“My departure, along with others’, might have only exacerbated an already chronic understaffing situation,” he said in a LinkedIn message.
The planning department did not respond to Atlanta Civic Circle’s requests for comment, but City Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet, the newly reappointed chair of the council’s zoning committee, said in an interview that it’s “definitely” staffing issues that have intown developers and architects concerned. (It is the mayor’s office that fills vacancies at the planning department and other city agencies, she said.)
Although many housing experts say the best way to foster affordability is making more efficient use of land—by, say, building more housing units by way of smaller apartment complexes and accessory dwelling units in single-family neighborhoods—Rhein said the bottleneck at the city planning department, coupled with not-in-my-backyard mindsets, can dissuade developers from getting creative.
“The easiest thing to do here is something that’s already been done; anything new is going to take a whole lot more time and effort,” she said.
Essentially, diversifying the housing stock in Atlanta, for some, is more trouble than it’s worth. That mentality could complicate Mayor Andre Dickens’ goal of providing 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026, one of his bestselling campaign promises.
Pavan Iyer told Atlanta Civic Circle that his design firm, eightvillage, recently got an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) permitted in Newton County in just two weeks. “If I’m trying to get an ADU permitted in Atlanta … it can take one or two months to even hear back,” he said.
Other cities and counties, he added, “have more flexibility on size and placement [of residential development], and overall, most municipalities in the suburban metro are ahead of Atlanta when it comes to ADUs.”
Within Atlanta’s planning department, Iyer said, “We need leadership to instill a culture of affordability that allows for opportunities for a diverse range of housing types and does not discriminate against the way people choose to live.”
“The city has done a good job of acknowledging and celebrating that people are diverse and have different lifestyles,” he said. “But similarly, I think we need to take an approach to those lifestyles, and different lifestyles are going to result in different types of housing, and different types of housing are actually going to help solve our [affordability] problems.”
But the city’s planning department is treading lightly when it comes to allowing more density for residentially zoned areas. For the ongoing overhaul of Atlanta’s outdated zoning code, ATL Zoning 2.0, the planners are using an incremental, case-by-case strategy, according to the city’s new planning chief, Jahnee Prince.
Prince has told Atlanta Civic Circle she intends to take a piecemeal approach to reimagining the land-use rulebook, soliciting community input and making zoning code changes neighborhood by neighborhood.
Since taking the job in October, she’s also declared she’ll protect single-family residential districts—flying in the face of her predecessor, Tim Keane, who endeavored to do away with zoning restrictions that permit only single-family dwellings for most of Atlanta’s residential property.
Councilmember Overstreet said Keane’s reformist approach to the zoning code rewrite was too much of a “broad stroke that I wasn’t comfortable with at all.” As a resident of a single-family neighborhood, where many of her neighbors have lived for decades, she said, “What we don’t want is someone right next door to have four [units on a single parcel].”
That’s an attitude many Atlanta residents share, as evidenced by Councilmember Amir Farokhi’s unsuccessful attempt just over a year ago to pass legislation that would allow accessory dwelling units and smaller apartment buildings in areas zoned only for single homes.
In late 2021, facing opposition from most of the city’s 25 neighborhood planning units, the city council’s zoning committee—including Overstreet—tabled the proposal, effectively killing it and raising uncertainty about whether similar legislation would surface.
While perhaps more politically palatable, this kind of caution—taking a fine-toothed comb to the zoning code rewrite process and carefully measuring what each neighborhood wants built—means ATL Zoning 2.0 will take years to complete, as city leaders like Overstreet and Prince acknowledge.
“I don’t mind cumbersome,” Overstreet said. “I don’t mind the process playing out.”
But Rhein said this incrementalist approach leaves her wary about the chances that ATL Zoning 2.0 will allow more affordable infill housing: “What this means at the macro level is that there is going to be less housing developed in the city of Atlanta,” Rhein said. “So the supply is going to be further constrained than it is today, and that’s going to exacerbate the existing affordable housing challenge.”
“I really appreciate that they’re trying to get robust public input, but I think it probably is more technical than it needs to be,” she added, alluding to a community outreach survey about ATL Zoning 2.0 issued by the planning department that activists called “really confusing.”
To properly confront the city’s housing affordability crisis, Rhein said, planning leaders “have to be courageous.”