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So You’re Running for Office…

Dignified Missing Middle housing and single family housing coexisting peacefully in Candler Park, Atlanta, a stone’s throw from a thriving commercial node and a 10-minute walk from a heavy rail station.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a young, hopeful person who has decided to run for city council.  This candidate has focused on issues of inclusion and equity as cornerstone principles.  While I fully support these principles in the abstract, I want to know immediately what specific policies would be rolled out to promote these goals.   I treasure these opportunities to change minds and dismantle perceptions and expectations.  It also gives me a chance to work through theories bouncing around in my head in real time as well.

If folks care about inclusivity and diversity, I quickly circle back to access to housing and jobs.  I link housing affordability, access to jobs, and access to transit directly back to land use policy as a core issue time and again.  My central thesis is that simply put, single-family zoning is the greatest threat to cities achieving success as defined by the ability to provide accessible, affordable, diverse, dignified, and walkable communities.  Communities that are engaged and accessible provide a variety of housing types, corner stores, and other neighborhood amenities.  These places cannot, cannot, cannot exist in neighborhoods zoned exclusively as single-family.  A duplex, fourplex, sixplex, and up can all be dignified buildings providing quality housing choices to a range of folks from Millennials to Boomers and everyone in between.  The vast majority of new households being formed for the next 30-40 years will consist of one and two persons; large single family homes do not provide a housing type that meets their needs.  Corner stores cannot be financially viable without a density of shoppers within close proximity – best if within a few walkable blocks.  Large-lot single family homes  prevent such corner stores from thriving, even if they were permitted by zoning.

We need to flip the script on single-family houses.  If you want this level of exclusivity and do not want to share your land with other city dwellers, you should have that option, but at a premium.  Carriage houses – accessory dwelling units – should be a requirement for any request to build a single family house.  If you do not want to provide such additional housing, I proposed the option to pay a fee in lieu of providing this valuable housing choice.  I’m also against limitations on use of guest houses.  I believe that AirBnB has a place as a valuable service.  I’m fine with units being used as such so long as we are creating a constant supply of new housing that can meet the needs of longer-term residents.

As Atlanta grows and housing costs spike, and our car-based transportation systems continue to demonstrate  their limited ability to handle disruption, we have to find a new way.  We simply must provide more housing in a dignified fashion closer to transit.  This means eliminating limitations imposed by single family zoning in the Beltline Overlay District and within a reasonable proximity of MARTA stations.  Single family homeowners typically resist such calls for housing diversity, expecting it to lower their property values.  We need to recognize the sliver of truth that exists in this expectation.  If you limit the supply of something, the market effect will be to make it more expensive and more valuable.  Allowing more housing options may bend the arc of housing appreciation and the negative impacts of gentrification,but creating robust, diverse communities with goods and services within walking distance increases the overall desirability of the place, increasing values yet again.  This cycle will further increase the need of providing more housing in such thriving places.

City leaders have been dancing around this issue, trying to promote density along transit corridors and maintaining an illusion that single family neighborhoods can be protected as some form of holy, innocent being that must be spared from the evils of development.  Other leaders hope for salvation in the mystical path of inclusionary zoning.  You cannot build housing that will ever be affordable without massive outside subsidy if we also build dedicated space to house our vehicles on the same property.  We cannot expect to build 200-400 unit complexes anywhere in this city in the near term and expect those places to exist without a dedicated place to store vehicles – surface lot or parking deck.  Lenders will not finance such endeavors without parking, and we are not nearly connected enough as a city to expect that many people to forego their cars.

The development math is a complete fail in trying to find ways to provide workforce housing at 80% of AMI while requiring parking without subsidy.  Housing can be provided without subsidy at a smaller scale (ADU, duplex, fourplex) if parking and related stormwater are NOT required.  This type of housing located close to transit is doable, non-disruptive to the surrounding community, and provides a level of density capable of supporting small-scale, community-based retail and office in the same community.  We have a scarcity of housing stock proximate to transit.  Our land use laws must be changed to allow dwellings near transit, making it easier for folks to have a car-optional lifestyle.

Shifting to this new housing paradigm necessitates an exceedingly high standard of design.  New multi-unit buildings can and must be designed in a way that is compatible with their surroundings.  This does not necessarily mean they should look traditional instead of contemporary, but their form, scale, massing, and detailing should be respectful of the place they are in.  This is a huge challenge to the design, development, and builder community of Atlanta.  It will also require some level of design review to get right.  Working through the right balance of policies, permits, and approvals will be of the utmost importance.

It is also critical to point out that land use changes without commensurate transportation policy investment is a recipe for disaster.  We are blessed in Atlanta with a functional heavy rail system and growing bike infrastructure.  Expanding both transit and protected bike lanes must be aggressively pursued in lockstep with further repair to our land use policy. That’s another blog post.

I understand that elected officials will probably view my recommendations as a complete third rail of politics.  I don’t expect this to be a workable path for politicians of any age.  Regardless, I challenge folks to read this and make their own decisions – to consider how we can create an open, diverse, engaged city without massive outside subsidy to cover the cost.  The submerged, unseen subsidies we provide to single family homes is choking our ability to lead as a world economy.  I’m curious which folks running for elected office can reconcile these challenges and package these needs in a way that will be accessible for their constituents.

05/11/2016 Update: Post edited to add a link to Inclusionary Zoning Policy Brief from NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy


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