The Decatur City Commission this week approved zoning changes that will free up single-family properties for denser residential development—something progressive Atlanta leaders have said would help confront the housing affordability crisis here, but that neighborhood groups have successfully fought in a bid to preserve a more suburban way of life.

Decatur’s new statutes, which go into effect June 30, will allow duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes to be built on parcels currently designated only for standalone homes and permit property owners to convert existing homes into multifamily dwellings, according to Decaturish. It will also allow for accessory dwelling units at certain residential properties.

As Atlanta’s planning department drafts a comprehensive rewrite of the city’s decades-old zoning code to accommodate the fast-growing population and address housing affordability, Decatur’s new upzoning laws raise an important question: Should Atlanta take a page from its eastern neighbor’s playbook?

Most of the city of Atlanta’s residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, but housing experts say allowing “missing middle” housing types like small apartment buildings, houses divided into multiple units, and accessory dwellings would help the city house more people, including lower-income renters. 

But local neighborhood planning units (NPUs) and other groups with not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) mindsets have protested—and ultimately thwarted—legislation that would boost intown residential density.

Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi in 2021 championed a rezoning proposal to permit accessory dwelling units and smaller apartments, but the council’s zoning committee, citing pushback from most of the city’s 25 NPUs, effectively killed the legislation at the end of that year.

Farokhi said Tuesday that he hopes Atlanta learns from Decatur’s new upzoning laws that it’s possible to foster housing affordability “while protecting what makes each neighborhood special.”

“It’s a positive step toward building more housing at scale to existing [properties] in Decatur,” he said. “Kudos to Decatur for welcoming more residents. I hope we can find the will to continue to welcome more folks in our city, too.”

Farokhi understands residents’ wariness toward denser development. But, he added, “Just saying no and pulling up the drawbridge behind us isn’t the right or smart thing to do.”

“People freak out,” local urbanist Matthew Garbett said of NIMBYists. “Increasing housing options is good, and this isn’t ‘eliminating single-family housing,’” as upzoning detractors have suggested, Garbett, a co-founder of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL told Atlanta Civic Circle.

“I find the entire argument [against densification] kind of bizarre and difficult to explain,” he added. “My understanding is a duplex/triplex/quadplex basically means a door, bathroom, and kitchen for each unit” in a single structure—which people shouldn’t find threatening.

Garbett said Decatur’s new move to allow some upzoning could show Atlanta lawmakers that this isn’t a radical urban design philosophy. But, given the local resistance, he doesn’t expect it to inspire the Atlanta City Council to enact reforms any time soon.

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  1. Perhaps when Atlanta finally votes for a tree ordinance that will protect trees that are threatened by denser housing, folks will consider denser solutions. However it is not necessary to have permission to build now. Just look around and now in Atlanta that these ADU’s and multiple housing are being built without permission and have been for several years. Farohki moved from a very dense part of his district to an area with trees and lawns as his family got bigger. Will Farohki help us get tree protection anytime soon in Atlanta? Decatur, expect huge tree loss.

  2. Matthew Garbett says: “this isn’t ‘eliminating single-family housing.” Maybe that’s the case for Decatur. But for Atlanta, please see a website of the City’s Planning Department that lays out ATL’s vision (and objectives) re: zoning. It’s called “Atlanta City Design – Housing,” and has been online since late 2020/early 2021. It can be found at the following link: In the final section (#4: “A Better Future Together”) the City planners cut to the chase: “End exclusionary single-family zoning.” Developers are not going to build affordable ADUs in expensive, in-town neighborhoods. They are going to tear down the city’s history so they can build condos – which will not be affordable.

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