MR-MU: Does Atlanta Really Care About Equity?
The Atlanta City Design is the guiding document for the future design of our city. It promotes the creation of the beloved community, an idea espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that encourages a city built on inclusivity and compassion. The Atlanta City Design asks us, in its opening paragraphs, to hold our city and ourselves accountable to our vision and aspirations of the beloved community. It urges us to call out injustices and discrimination that prevent us from achieving our collective goals and calls on us all to forge a new path towards an Atlanta for everyone. “If we believe that our city can do better, then we have to act now and make sure that it does. Let’s translate our core values into the physical and regulatory structures that shape our city so that Atlanta remains a reflection of us.”
The Atlanta City Design reminds us that growth is coming, and that change is inevitable. Like many cities around the country, Atlanta is grappling with unprecedented growth, decreasing affordability, and increased congestion. But the Atlanta City Design also reminds us that growth does not have to mean rising costs of living and traffic. Growth presents us with an opportunity to be the city we want to be, if we design for it and manage it well. The primary ways to do this are to 1) align density with transit and 2) to allow context-sensitive density in our city’s predominate land use: single-family. Ideally, you do both.
Interestingly, these are not new ideas. Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods developed in tandem with our historic streetcar system, and our historic neighborhoods are full of “missing middle housing,” which provided the density needed to support streetcar ridership and local amenities such as corner stores, restaurants, parks and schools. When the city zoned these neighborhoods as exclusively Single-Family (long after they were built), these historic housing types became illegal. While many examples can still be found throughout the city, many more have been removed and new versions have been precluded for over 50 years.
The new MR-MU category was created to bring these typologies, and their context-sensitive density, back to the neighborhoods where they once thrived. In addition to providing neighborhood-scale density, Missing Middle housing provides more affordable housing options through smaller units and limited parking. As in-town neighborhoods continue to see prices rise, the delivery of market-rate affordable housing can help maintain equity, diversity and access in our most desirable communities – other stated goals of the Atlanta City Design.
The intent of the MRMU ordinance is summed up well in Mayor Bottom’s ONE Atlanta Action Plan: Atlanta needs a diverse housing stock that includes a range of housing options and price points. Traditionally, Atlanta neighborhoods contain predominantly single-family housing or multifamily apartments. The “Missing Middle” Housing Ordinance enacted in 2019 sets up incentives for property owners and developers to fill the gap between single-family housing and mid-rise construction by changing the zoning code to allow property owners in targeted areas of the city to build or renovate [Missing Middle] building types. By expanding options for building multi-unit structures in designated neighborhoods, this ordinance will help to improve affordability by increasing the overall supply of housing and make less-expensive housing options available within resource-rich neighborhoods. We will work to increase the use of the “Missing Middle” option.
The new MRMU category allows for one building per lot, with between 4-12 units. While the city created this new zoning category to support missing middle housing, they did not create any MRMU zoned properties. This means that any property desiring to use the MRMU designation will need a rezoning. And what does a rezoning require? It requires recommendations from the neighborhood (NPU), the city, and the ZRB.
Unfortunately, the MRMU zoning category is being met with extreme neighborhood resistance. We’ve been scratching our heads and asking ourselves, why would something that upholds our collective goals be met with resistance? The answer, as with most things, is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that our rezoning process is not set up to support long-term or collective goals. We set our goals at the highest level: we want our city to be affordable and inclusive. But when you ask people to decide where affordable, inclusive housing should go, it’s almost never near them. The cited reasons are vast: it’s too dense, it will create traffic, it won’t fit in, it will set a precedent, it will decrease property values…the list goes on and on, defying both logic and history. And even more unfortunate, city and ZRB support wane with neighborhood disapproval.
We need density near transit, we know that. We also know that over 1/3 of land within walking distance to a MARTA station or the Beltline is zoned exclusively for single-family. We need to allow housing choice to exist again in these walkable, resource-rich areas. We need to recognize the injustice in denying housing choice near transit, and the injustice in allowing a few, loud voices to dominate the conversation about what belongs (or doesn’t belong) in a neighborhood. We need to hold ourselves and our communities accountable to our collective goals, or we will never achieve them. Accountability starts at the local level, it starts with each of us.
If we really care about equity in our city, the path should be straightforward. Our vision is outlined in the Atlanta City Design: we encourage you to read it, to share it with your neighbors. Our goals are evidenced in over two years of public input for amending our zoning code: we encourage you to learn more about Missing Middle, and why the MRMU category was created. Our goals are codified into law in our zoning ordinance: we encourage you to advocate for missing middle projects that come to your neighborhood, and to engage in thoughtful and respectful discourse with your neighbors. It will not be easy, but if we continue to allow our collective goals to be overridden by a few outspoken property owners, then the state of equity in our city is more fragile than ever. It’s time to let our goals become reality, to prioritize the beloved community over the status quo. To do this, we need a wider array of voices weighing in on these matters. If you’re not already, we encourage you to get engaged in these conversations and in your community. We’ll see you out there.