Affordable housing project not an idea all can live with
OPINION
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Bill Torpy
Only In The AJC
It’s a concept that makes sense — squeezing in more units of housing near MARTA stations to meet Atlanta’s growing population. The idea is that people might choose to take the train, live without a car, and make it feel more like a real city.

Like I said, it’s a fine idea. At least in theory. Those now living in communities that would draw these potential new residents are less enthusiastic.

They say the city’s plan to allow up to 12 units of housing on lots currently occupied by a single-family home could be a fiasco for their way of life and a boon to audacious developers.


Under the plan, which is in proposed legislation from City Councilman Amir Farokhi, single-family homes within a halfmile walk of a MARTA station could be converted into buildings offering four apartments each. If such a building included an affordably priced apartment, that building then would be allowed to have eight units. And if such a building included a second affordably priced apartment, it would be allowed to have 12 units.

That’s a lot of living going on in a small space.

If passed, the ordinance would affect almost 3,000 parcels of property near MARTA stations.

In addition to that, the city wants to welcome more mothers-in-law. No, I’m not talking about the lady who gave birth to your spouse. The city wants to allow more so-called mother-in-law suites, or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — which include basement and garage apartments or tiny houses out back — in more neighborhoods across the city.

“Quite simply, housing demand exceeds housing supply and we have obligations to make decisions for the city’s future,” Farokhi said. “There’s plenty of room to fit more folks in.”

Atlanta planning czar Tim Keane, whose department is pushing the proposals, said if 15% of single-family parcels added mother-in-law suites, the city could add 11,500 new units. He contends these would add more affordable housing, allowing teachers, retail clerks and mail carriers more access to a city that’s rapidly pricing them out.

“Atlanta has a relatively short window of time to address this issue of housing,” Keane said.

Currently, there are about 110,000 single-family homes in Atlanta and almost 80,000 units in complexes containing more than 50 units. But there is a dearth of buildings with two, four, eight or 12 units, structures that could offer more affordable housing, Keane said, adding, “We have to change what we approve to allow more kinds of housing.”

But — and this is a large “but” — many neighborhoods across Atlanta are not embracing the proposals.

Naturally, Buckhead is leading the warpath. But the wariness and unhappiness stretches north and south, black and white, Dem and GOP.

I watched the meeting Thursday night for Neighborhood Planning Unit-N, which includes Candler Park, Inman Park and Lake Clair — communities that are all reliably progressive.

Several people who spoke about the proposals said they thought the ideas were commendable.

But they had their worries.

One woman was concerned the accessory dwellings and new apartments might just end up being pricey Airbnbs.

Another said the proposals “seem like a very blunt instrument for achieving the city’s laudable goals.”

One man called it a “wealth-creating tool for developers.” A woman said, “This feels like the wild, wild west of development.

Anything goes.”

Interestingly, in a widely circulated letter, Buckhead resident Gloria Cheatham, who is a lawyer, wrote about the city leaders’ “wild west approach” to planning and accused them of pulling a bait-and-switch on residents. Cheatham was joined by the leaders of Neighborhood Planning Units A, B and C (the northernmost Buckhead NPUs), as well as NPU-I (which is on the city’s southwest side).

Cheatham wrote that just a few years ago, planners created a document mapping out “growth areas” in the city. The areas, according to the document, “represent an enormous capacity that, if properly designed, can easily accommodate Atlanta’s growing population.”

Cheatham argued that the single-family districts, which are now being eyed for growth, were not slated to handle so many new residents.

(I must point out that even though the city is growing quickly, projections for its growth seem on the outlandish side. An oft-stated projection says the city of Atlanta will one day have 1.2 million residents.

The 2020 census said there were 499,000 Atlanta residents, up 70,000 from 10 years earlier.

At this rate, it’ll take a century to hit that 1.2 million.) I called around to several areas of the city and most people I spoke with, residents who are active in their NPUs or neighborhood associations, leaned against the proposals.

Kay Wallace, a longtime resident of the West End neighborhood, said, “They don’t think about the fabric of neighborhoods. We already have hundreds of units of affordable housing around the West End MARTA station.”

Later, she added, “Put some over by the Ansley Golf Course. The diversity of housing needs to be all throughout the city.”

I called the head of the NPU representing Ansley Park. Not surprisingly, residents there are unhappy, too. Nabil Hamman, who chairs NPU-E, echoed others who say the process has not been conducted openly and accuse the city of trying to force a “blanket solution” that doesn’t work in all neighborhoods.

Dianne Bryant, a Capitol View resident, said her Neighborhood Planning Unit, NPU-X, is supportive of the proposal. “The idea of having more housing close to MARTA makes sense,” she said. “The building I live in is an eight-unit, which is kind of rare.”

Eunice Glover, who heads NPU-I in southwest Atlanta, said people were surprised by the proposals, adding, “Most communities value their single-family homes.”

And most politicians value their single-family homeowners. They are the backbone of most cities, invested more for the long term. They show up more frequently at NPU meetings to voice their opinions and, most important, are more likely to show up at the polls.

That’s why politicos love them. Or at least have a healthy fear of them.

I mentioned to Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner, that reliably liberal Candler Park seems to have lots of opposition, or at least reticence, to the proposals.

“I don’t find Candler Park to be supportive of anything considering density,” he said. “You’re a lot less progressive if you’re talking about affordable housing in your neighborhood.”

Like I said, a fine idea.

With a long way to go.