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Although the nationwide appetite for increasing residential density has grown in recent years, efforts to enact zoning policies that spur smarter, tighter housing development still face fierce opposition from people who see “upzoning” as a threat to their suburban lifestyles.

That clash is playing out in metro Atlanta, where municipalities are trying to balance rewriting their zoning laws so that they foster housing affordability—allowing accessory dwelling units, duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, and micro homes—but also preserve established neighborhoods’ history and culture by maintaining some districts zoned single-family. 

For municipal leaders who want to make housing more affordable as metro Atlanta’s population booms, “rethinking exclusionary single-family zoning may be the way of the future,” University of Georgia urban planning expert Sonia Hirt told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email.

As the city of Clarkston rewrites its zoning code, its city council is considering measures for more accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—like tiny homes in backyards or apartments over garages—and other nontraditional housing types, but they’re up against the not-in-my-backyard mindsets that Hirt said are proliferating in upzoning fights around the country.

“Opposition to upzoning under the umbrella of NIMBYism comes in the form of concerns that density would bring danger, traffic, pollution, [and] school overcrowding, and it will decrease nearby property values,” she said.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Clarkston, where city council members just deferred a vote on upzoning until May, according to Decaturish. City Councilmember Susan Hood, one of the proposal’s most ardent critics, did not respond to a request for comment.

Local pushback to upzoning is also happening in Atlanta, which is in the final phases of soliciting public input before it drafts an overhaul of its long out-of-date zoning code, called ATL Zoning 2.0—expected to wrap in summer 2024. 

In Decatur, the city commission in February overcame opposition to upzoning and relaxed zoning restrictions on single-family areas to allow more dense development, like ADUs and small apartment complexes, as long as it fits the same footprint as the homes allowed there.

Single-family only? 

“NIMBYism is going to expedite housing cost increases for all,” said Will Johnston, the executive director of tiny-home developer MicroLife Institute in Clarkston, who’s a member of the city’s technical advisory committee for the zoning code update.

“If Clarkston did pass this [updated zoning ordinance], it would be one of the top cities in the metro Atlanta area to be tackling the affordable housing crisis,” Johnston told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview.

In Atlanta, City Planning Commissioner Jahnee Prince wants to protect many of Atlanta’s single-family-only districts, but she told Atlanta Civic Circle in a November interview that “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.”

Prince said in an email this week that TSW Design, the urban planning consultancy handling community outreach for ATL Zoning 2.0, has not yet compiled its findings. The zoning code overhaul’s specific goals will be made public soon after a final April 20 meeting at Junction 2800, in southwest Atlanta, to solicit residents’ input.

TSW Design likely should “have a good summary of all the public input in hand as they begin drafting the first few sections of the code,” she said.

TSW Design’s Caleb Racicot did not respond to emailed questions about the trends his firm has identified during the public engagement process, which started in November 2021. He said during a community meeting in January that housing affordability was top of mind for Atlantans. 

How much community input? 

Some urbanist groups, like Abundant Housing Atlanta—the local chapter of the nationwide YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) Action network—are skeptical of the city’s community outreach efforts, calling the planning department’s resident surveys “really confusing if you’re not a land-use professional.”

Abundant Housing Atlanta co-founder Alison Grady told Atlanta Civic Circle in an email that the complicated surveys are “resulting in extremely minimal community input.” The planning department disagrees. Keyetta Holmes, the director of the city’s office of zoning and development, pointed to the ongoing series of in-person and virtual meetings meant to walk residents through the complex rewrite effort.

Grady said the city planning office must overhaul the single-family status quo in the residential portion of the zoning code rewrite to “reflect so many of the built environments of our existing neighborhoods,” if the aim is to create more affordable housing options.

“Atlanta is becoming more and more unaffordable, in large part due to the outdated zoning code that encourages suburban sprawl and huge homes on huge properties and discourages—or outright bans—more affordable options, such as tiny homes, duplexes, and small apartment and condo buildings,” she said. 

“Does Atlanta want to be a welcoming community where anyone who wants to live in Atlanta can afford to live in Atlanta?” she asked. “Or do we want to continue down the path of sprawl and of becoming a place where only the wealthy few can afford to live, work, and play?”

If Atlanta, Clarkston, and other metro-area cities truly want to make intown living attainable for lower-income residents—and “mitigate some of the negative social and environmental impacts of urban sprawl”—upzoning should be part of the equation, said Hirt, the UGA urban planning expert.

Miami, Minneapolis, and Portland have embraced zoning measures that encourage density, she said, and many other major cities are warming to it. Washington state’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill in March that would allow up to four units per lot on land zoned for residential use in cities across the state. House Bill 1110 is currently in committee in the state Senate.

This kind of limited upzoning, known to yield “missing middle” housing, is one way to ensure upzoning does not over-densify single-family areas. The impetus for the surge of interest, Hirt said, “is the housing affordability crisis, concerns about social justice and growing awareness of the economic and environmental costs of spread-out land patterns, which are often mandated in zoning ordinances.”

When cities build tighter, she said, traffic often subsides, and the cost of living is tempered as supply increases to meet demand—changes that benefit the social, economic, and environmental health of communities.

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  1. All who rush to embrace rezoning and “more density” as a means to creating more affordable housing — a giveaway to developers who care only about their profit margins and NOT the community — should look at what actually happens and has happened in cities that have taken this route. New York City tried this approach in 2016, and here’s the result, per a recent analysis from Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine: “In particular, the report states that the much-heralded Mandatory Inclusionary Housing Program, implemented citywide in 2016 and requiring developers to include affordable housing in areas that are rezoned for more housing development, has produced no affordable units in Lower Manhattan.” You’re being used and manipulated. Stop repeating slogans and look at actual results.

  2. Where are the natural resources, e.g. water, and infrastructure e.g. sewers and transportation going to come from to support this increased density? It seems that those questions never make the news. How about a 25% development tax on sales price for any of the above proposals to pay for what is ultimately going to hit the taxpayers?

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