Metro Atlanta has a reputation for being an affordable place to live, but this critical competitive advantage is in jeopardy as housing costs rise across the region, while too few affordable units are being built.
The Atlanta Regional Housing Task Force, which includes developers, mayors, and city planners, explored this issue at a recent meeting hosted by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The task force received a briefing about the issue from the Urban Land Institute and explored potential solutions, hearing a presentation by Atlanta City Council member Andre Dickens about that city’s new inclusionary zoning policy. The policy incentivizes developers to build more affordable units in around the Atlanta BeltLine and in the Westside neighborhoods.
New Research Spotlights the Need
Sarah Kirsch, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Atlanta office, presented results of research it funded, into the growing need for affordable workforce housing in the Atlanta region. The research focused on the five “core counties,” Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett, because 66% of the region’s 2.2 million households and 77% of its 1.9 million jobs are in those counties.
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According to the study:
Median incomes increased just 1% per year between 2010 and 2015.
At the same time, new home prices rose by 3.7%, while apartment rents increased by 4.5% (units built before 2012) and 9.5% (built 2012 and later).
Only 10% of new apartments rent for less than $1,000 per month, which is affordable to a household earning 80% of the annual median income.
Lack of transit access to job centers means long, expensive commutes, which drive up transportation costs for moderate income households.
ULI Atlanta has set an ambitious goal for the region: building 10,000 affordable units every year through 2028, solving about one-third of the region’s need. Kirsch said that her organization is also available to provide technical assistance to communities.
One Solution: Inclusionary Zoning
The Atlanta City Council voted to adopt inclusionary zoning earlier this year in hopes of incentivizing developers to build more affordable units near the Atlanta BeltLine and in Westside neighborhoods.
The champion of the effort, Councilman Andre Dickens, and several city staff members talked about the zoning policy and how they built political support for the change.
Dickens said that he hopes the city can serve as a model, or at least a conversation-starter, for other communities around metro Atlanta.
“Housing challenges are regional,” said Dickens. “When we create a policy in the city of Atlanta, we want to be able to share it across the region. ARC is helping us do that.”
Councilman Andre Dickens
City of Atlanta staff said it took more than three years for the city council to pass the zoning policy. That time was spent:
Researching inclusionary zoning that worked in other large cities,
Asking developers their thresholds for profit on affordable projects,
Finding a compromise between developers and affordable housing advocates,
Getting reviews from all 25 Neighborhood Planning Units around Atlanta,
And hearing other valuable community input.
The resolution that passed defines “affordable housing” as units that are affordable for a family earning less than 80% of the average median income (AMI) for their area. For a development to be considered “affordable,” 15% of housing units must be affordable to residents earning 80% of AMI, or 10% of its units must be affordable to residents earning 60% of AMI.
Rather than trying to create a one-size-fits-all code, Dickens and his staff broke the city into subareas, going so far as to portion out the BeltLine itself into subareas for accurate calculation of AMI. This helps to prevent gentrification by ensuring that new affordable units will be priced appropriately for existing residents of a subarea.
Balancing these requirements is a list of incentives offered to developers along the BeltLine or in Westside. Those incentives include:
Increased density (taller buildings) allowed
Transfer of development rights
Waiver of minimum parking requirements for residential developments
Expedited review of applications and other necessary documents to make process more efficient
If a developer chooses not to include affordable units in a project, they can pay a per-unit fee that is based on the above requirements. This fee is put into a trust fund and is used to help build affordable units in another development in the same subarea or an adjacent one.
“While inclusionary zoning, even in parts of the region’s largest city, won’t solve the region’s affordable housing issues, it is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Sam Shenbaga, manager of ARC’s Community Development Group.
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