Atlanta’s housing crisis: stop making it worse with bad arguments against growth

Honeysuckle growing beside an empty lot in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, which has been ground zero for debates about gentrification and displacement in the city for several years.
“Housing scarcity — exacerbated by the ridiculous amount of this city zoned for single-family housing — deserves as much blame for the displacement crisis as gentrification….And unlike gentrification…scarcity and single-family zoning are two things we can actually do something about.”

The above quote was written about Seattle but it could easily be said about Atlanta as well. Just like in Seattle and many other US cities, car-centric detached housing boomed in the Atlanta suburbs for decades while the city grew relatively little housing, relative to regional population growth.

For a long time, the city seemed content to serve as the office park and events facility for the metro area. That has to change. The resulting scarcity of intown housing (again — this is relative to regional supply and demand), coupled with the demand for intown living has created a crisis on multiple levels, including affordability.

Something that stifles the needed growth in the city: the many intown residents who argue against growth of apartments, townhomes and other urban-housing formats. Sometimes we’ll hear a cry of “preserve neighborhood character” and sometime it’s “end gentrification,” both of which are used to protest new developments.

And both are wrong, because they each offer up false dichotomies.

False dichotomy #1: destroy the neighborhood or stop development

On the “neighborhood character” side, we don’t have a dual choice between bulldozing homes in old neighborhoods and simply doing nothing. There are several shades of in-between options where we preserve existing houses and build new stuff in empty or disused spaces. Or convert some homes to duplexes. Or add accessory dwelling units.

And please, please stop arguing that density exacerbates car traffic in your historic neighborhood. Free/cheap parking increases car trips — know your enemy. Density in itself, particularly near transit and bike lanes, does not equal car trips.

False dichotomy # 2: displace residents or stop development

On the “gentrification” side, we don’t have a dual choice between displacing or economically burdening longtime residents and simply doing nothing. Fixes for economic assistance (stability in property taxes, rent assistance) are still emerging, and need to be hurried up, to be sure. They’re crucial, in fact.

Meanwhile, we can’t hit a pause button on gentrification, and pretending that we can do so is dangerously deceptive. It deters us from focusing on actual fixes that make a difference in the lives of people who are being negatively affected by it. We have no legal ability to prevent wealthy people from moving into lower-income residential areas, and only a very limited ability to prevent them from tearing down small houses to build oversized McMansions in their place.

If wealthy people want to live in the city near jobs, they’ll get in. While we’re working/waiting on the much-needed tools for alleviating the economic burdens of gentrification (and increasing affordable housing stock in general), we can at least accommodate wealthier newcomers with sensitively-placed & designed infill so that we can preserve the older housing stock.

What we can do right now

As the Seattle article states, we also need to “rezone huge swaths of the city. Build more units of affordable housing, borrow the social housing model…do away with parking requirements, and — yes — let developers develop.”

A project is underway to rewrite the zoning code for the City of Atlanta, and it’ll potentially offer some very positive changes in the way population growth affects the city and its current residents. But that rewrite is several years away from being completed and enacted, and much harm can be done in the meantime due to development, or the lack of it, that happens under current regulations.

Anything we can do in the interim — such as getting rid of parking requirements (which raise home prices) and increasing requirements for affordable housing, something we’ve seen some movement on— will help.

This is a battle of both policy and attitudes. Housing is one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) issues in US cities, and it’s particularly important in Atlanta. A sea change needs to happen in this city where we understand this to be an issue of social justice and resiliency, not just economy and property rights.

More like this…here’s a great model for growth

Work is well underway on the conversion of this beautiful old commercial building, on Pryor Street, to residential lofts. This will be the first “new” condo or apartment building in Atlanta’s South Downtown in over 10 years.

We need to take a look at the underused spaces in Downtown Atlanta and recognized them as perfect places for growing housing, because there are no single-family homes to be affected. This is a good example, pictured above: work is well underway on the conversion of this beautiful old commercial building on Pryor Street to residential lofts. This will be the first new condo or apartment building in South Downtown in over 10 years.

Which is exciting and sad at the same time — we should not have gone 10 years with this dearth of housing growth in an area with great transit connections and walkable street grids. More like this. Please displace the surface parking lots and empty lots of Downtown Atlanta.