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Let's Keep Quick Fixing!

The City of Atlanta’s zoning rewrite is going to be a long slog. That’s why it’s not the right place to focus immediate efforts for folks concerned about our current housing crisis. At KUA, we think there are better ways to improve housing outcomes sooner. The stated goal of the rewrite is to provide better calibrated tools that can map to existing zoning on the ground. But no serious proposals are being floated to change where and how we allow more housing, particularly within existing neighborhoods. Atlanta City Design speaks to the specific importance of allowing more housing choices within existing communities, and it’s deeply disappointing to not hear this being specifically included in the current rewrite conversation. This means the most important efforts housing advocates can focus on now is to push for incremental quick fixes to our current zoning. This will provide better current conditions for the rewrite to eventually map to. Someday. Like 2025 or 2026.

One worthy effort is to pick back up the efforts to reform MR-MU, Atlanta’s first true Missing Middle zoning district. The current zoning category is fairly functional as-is, which is why NIMBYs hate it. Trying to make the existing category better calibrated is a losing game from the start, all because of the baggage associated with the name.

So how do we fix something that is a favorite NIMBY target? Pivot, and create a new district with a less scary name. Ideally a category that is somewhere between the allowable 12plex density of MR-MU and the four-unit density allowed under R-5. 12plexes are great and important, but they do tend to attract significant NIMBY angst. Would an alternate category that only allows six cute cottages attract less vitriol? Maybe, and it’s worth a shot to increase our tools to address the housing crisis.

We are currently working on an approach for a new district, R-6. Why call it R-6? First, because it’s next in line after R-5 in the single-family section of Atlanta Zoning. Second, because it would only allow up to six cottages in some instances and only allow up to 0.65 FAR and lot coverage. This district would start with only allowing two primary homes without size caps other than the overall allowable square footage for the site. This would be just like R-5. It would then allow two additional smaller cottages in the rear, just like R-5 allows ADUs. The limits on the smaller cottages are calibrated to proposed size modifications to ADUs that we are also working on.

So at the start, R-6 is just like R-5 in terms of basic unit allowances, but with a big difference. You would be allowed to sell all four units fee simple. This simplifies financing for building, selling and buying these units. The size caps would guarantee smaller, more affordable units would be built. It’s important to realize that we’ve professionalized the skills needed to get through the gauntlet of building approvals and construction. If we want more housing, we’ve got to make it worthwhile for builders and developers to deliver more of the type of housing we need. It would be far superior to simplify our entire city regulatory system to make it easier for mere mortals to be able to permit and build their own housing. Odds of NIMBYs embracing this level of deregulation is far, far less than snowballs chances in Miami, or hell.

An important twist to R-6 is that there is a possibility of providing a little more housing with affordability commitments via deed restrictions. Providing workforce housing would allow you to go from four to six units. You wouldn’t be permitted any additional square footage, so some can argue that there is no more density. You are simply allowed to divide the permitted density into smaller cottages, allowing for more attainable housing options. This entire SINGLE FAMILY district is set up to allow compatible cottage courts, AKA gentle density, in a way that can seamlessly integrate with existing older neighborhoods.

One technical point to make is the comment above about SINGLE FAMILY. The City of Atlanta has two very different standards for single family versus commercial and multifamily properties. This is especially true when it comes to site design and site impact standards. The City of Atlanta’s single family site review is one of the most robust in the country. Allowing R-6 cottage courts to be reviewed under the single family standards is a critical way to allow housing to be more affordably delivered, while still meeting exceedingly robust site and stormwater standards.

Another key technical point is how R-6 would fit into our current Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP). This plan lists a range of land use categories, and they are mapped across the city. The different categories limit the types of zoning that can exist within them. The lowest level of land use density is Single Family Residential (SFR). R-5 is not allowed to exist in SFR, and the same would apply to R-6. Both would need to have a Low Density Residential (LDR) land use category. This works to limit the places R-6 could be rezoned too, or a land use change would also have to be requested (another process that requires community and City input).

One bummer is that the initial goal is to just create a new zoning district. Politics being politics, there is no plan to preemptively map this district to any land in the city. Applicants will have to rezone case by case. This sucks, but we have been working on multiple infill redevelopment projects where having a tool like this would be hugely helpful. We’ve had to Frankenstein planned development districts (PD-H) to achieve similar goals. PD-H are custom zonings, and they create a significant enforcement burden on Planning offices because each one is custom and takes staff much longer to acclimate to the requirements as opposed to standard districts like an R-6.

One interesting wrinkle to with this district could be around Short Term Rentals (STRs). There have been ongoing efforts to limit or restrict STRs in the city. The legalities of such restrictions are difficult to say the least. It would be different to bake in restrictions to a new district like R-6. You would not be forcing restrictions on anyone if they had to voluntarily opt into the district. The goal of R-6 is not to create mini-boutique hotels within neighborhoods, but to provide more long-term housing. Limiting STRs in this district seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

We’ve got an eager city council ready to start pushing housing legislation forward. R-6 is a great place to start.

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