Where—and how—Atlantans want to live now

The pandemic has drastically altered how and where we want to live. What are the options in metro Atlanta?

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Welcome to the Age of Nesting. The London-based Future Laboratory coined that phrase, noting that we’ve just emerged from “the largest home-working case study in history,” which will profoundly impact where and how we live. The Economist reported that moving patterns could be in for the greatest shift since the suburbanization of the 1950s.

Nowhere are people giving this more thought than here in Atlanta, a city that offers an especially wide array of living choices. It’s one reason our metro area has grown so rapidly—behind only Dallas and Houston in the last decade. But the plethora of options makes tracking significant shifts complicated. Harry Norman’s Todd Emerson told Axios Atlanta that, in 2021, the two metro neighborhoods with the highest home value appreciation were Kirkwood and Norcross. People are moving both in and out of the city. Apartment List Chief Economist Igor Popov suggests our nation isn’t so much experiencing an urban exodus as an “urban shuffle.”

Not only are we considering different places to live, we’re looking for different types of living spaces. Before the pandemic, “we were really on a downward trajectory, with people trying to build smaller, more efficient homes and well-appointed homes,” says Nicholas Brown, an agent with Compass real estate in Atlanta. “Now, I’m starting to see square footage sizes move back up again. People are willing to spend more than I’ve ever seen before to get exactly what they want.”

Outdoor entertaining areas have become a priority at all price points, whether that’s a wide front porch or a basketball court. “And you cannot even get an appointment with a pool contractor,” Brown adds. He’s finding buyers want to walk directly outside from the main floor, so daylight basements have become less desirable.

Brown says families are demanding one or even two home offices, not to mention homework rooms for the kids—all outfitted with plenty of charging stations and wireless technology. People are adding security systems and outdoor reception areas to keep deliveries hidden, sometimes even equipped with refrigeration for perishable Instacart deliveries. Because people are spending more time at home, they now prefer laundry rooms on the main floor. Brown had one client devote a closet entirely to paper products.

The wish list is long, but, as our reporters discovered, there’s one problem across metro Atlanta: Nothing’s on the market. —Betsy Riley

NAVIGATION

What’s going on ITP
What’s going on OTP
What’s going on in the exurbs
A look at metro Atlanta’s housing markets


ITP

Mobility and other forces are shaping the future of intown neighborhoods
By Jennifer Rainey Marquez

Hottest Issue: The Atlanta BeltLine comes full circle

Gray Stewart, a fifth-generation Atlantan, has lived in Cabbagetown for 25 years. He bought his house in 1997 for a scant $49,000 and, in the early years, remembers seeing his neighbors counting out their change to pay for purchases at Little’s grocery. “It used to be a working-class neighborhood,” says Stewart, 60. “That has changed.” Today, the median home price in Cabbagetown is somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000, according to Redfin, and the average one-bedroom rents for more than $2,000 a month. The BeltLine’s own Demographic Data Explorer tool shows that the median household income has also risen 165 percent (from just over $31,000 to nearly $84,000) since 2000, the year after Ryan Gravel first proposed the ribbon of trails and parks that would connect 45 intown neighborhoods.

It’s been more than a decade since the first stretches of the BeltLine were completed. In many of the neighborhoods abutting those early sections—places like the Old Fourth Ward and West End—the trail has ushered in dramatic changes. At the end of 2021, the BeltLine announced that it had raised enough money ($300 million from the city, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and philanthropic organizations) to complete the 23-mile loop by 2030. When it’s done, visitors will be able to have lunch at Slutty Vegan in Westview, then head down to Eventide in Grant Park for drinks before catching a flick at Midtown Arts—all conceivably without getting in their cars.

But the question many are wrestling with is this: Will a tsunami of gentrification, accelerated by BeltLine-driven speculation, continue to engulf neighborhoods across the city, particularly those bordering sections of the trail that have yet to be completed? And can Atlanta do anything to hold back the tide for its low- and middle-income residents, especially legacy homeowners, who are disproportionately Black?

These issues weigh heavily on Atlanta BeltLine Inc. CEO Clyde Higgs. When ABI was founded in 2005, housing advocates expressed concerns about gentrification and began pushing the organization to establish an affordable-housing program. Yet in 2017, an investigation by the AJC revealed that, out of the 5,600 affordable homes that were promised, the BeltLine had funded only 785. The year before, Gravel, the project’s architect, had resigned from the board, citing equity concerns. Today, Higgs, who was named CEO in 2019, says that the organization is focused on more “holistic” development. “We’ve learned, and we’ve gotten substantially better.” Still, he concedes, “I often think about the ‘what ifs.’”

Dan Immergluck, an urban studies professor at Georgia State University, has been a frequent critic of the BeltLine’s failures on affordable housing, although he gives the organization credit for improvement in recent years. The problem, he says, is that the BeltLine has pushed up land values, greatly increasing the cost of providing affordable housing. “When you try to do an antidisplacement effort 15 years after you started this project, it’s maybe not the best time.”

The BeltLine is working to help some of the remaining neighbors stay. The organization has raised funds to help legacy homeowners cover the cost of increased property taxes. And in May 2021, the BeltLine purchased 31 acres (at a below-market price of $25.6 million) to develop affordable housing in Bankhead. The move came eight months after Microsoft announced it had acquired nearly 70 acres for a new corporate campus about a mile away in Grove Park. “We knew that was an area ripe for development and all the pressures coming along with it,” says Higgs, who notes that it “was our largest transaction ever on the affordability side.”

If there’s a nexus for future gentrification in Atlanta, it may be Grove Park, which is adjacent not only to the BeltLine and the forthcoming Microsoft campus but also to the new Westside Park, a sprawling 280-acre greenspace that is now the largest park in the city. Those developments have LaTonya Gates worried. Gates runs PawKids, an enrichment program for children on Atlanta’s west side. She describes Grove Park, where she’s lived for the past seven years, as a place that was forgotten by the city. To her neighbors, new greenspace is a questionable asset. As recently as 2016, you could buy a home there for about $50,000, but real-estate speculation in the neighborhood, which has a median household income of less than $24,000, has led to a five-fold price increase.

“I look at the amazing school that the Grove Park Foundation just built (KIPP Woodson Park Academy), and I know that school is not for the kids who live here now,” she says. “It’s for the kids to come. Because it’s happening fast. It’s happening faster than it did in places like Edgewood. They didn’t have an enormous park. They didn’t have a Microsoft.”

That’s made things harder for philanthropic organizations trying to preserve some measure of affordability. Grove Park Renewal is a nonprofit that has purchased and renovated more than 50 properties in the neighborhood, which it then leases at reduced rates capped at 30 percent of residents’ income. The group wants to scale up to more than 200 units, but the odds are stacking up against them. Executive Director Justin Bleeker says they’ve recently lost seven home bids to investors.

Amanda Rhein, executive director of the Atlanta Land Trust, has been confronted with the same problem. Established in 2009, the Land Trust aims to keep housing affordable in perpetuity by acquiring properties and selling the homes—but not the land itself—to buyers at discounted prices. When homeowners are ready to move on, they can only sell to other low-income buyers. The organization has been focused on Southwest Atlanta, but it has now added Grove Park. “I do wish we would have been doing this work years ago, because it would have put us in a better situation to acquire property,” Rhein says.

The Westside Future Fund also works to reduce displacement of legacy residents in the Historic West Side and attract new residents with existing ties to the community (like alumni of the Atlanta University Center). Using a public-private partnership model, they have acquired properties through in-kind contributions from the City of Atlanta, Invest Atlanta, and Atlanta Housing and through low-interest loans from community-minded corporate investors. “Much of our focus has been on acquisition—building our pipeline of properties before values began to skyrocket,” says Rachel Carey, chief real-estate officer. “As prices climb, it becomes harder to compete with investors with deep pockets. We win some because landowners’ values align with our own, and we can pay fair market prices, but we also lose a lot.”

Ultimately, says Immergluck, the city has to create more policy solutions—like the recent legislation approved to set aside 2 percent of the city’s general fund for affordable-housing initiatives—that will provide intentional affordability into the future, rather than relying on charitable funding to reduce displacement. “The way neighborhoods really change is less about who leaves and more about who moves in,” he says. “Right now, there’s still an opportunity to change the trajectory, even if it’s not the ideal time. But the alternative is to basically write off a huge chunk of Atlanta as a place that low- and moderate-income people just can’t live. You have to ask the question: What kind of city do we want to be at the end of all this?”

Major challenge: Public safety

During the pandemic, the U.S. experienced its biggest uptick in murders in decades. Atlanta saw a 60 percent increase in homicides from 2019 to 2021, although rates of many other types of crime remained relatively flat or even decreased. Despite this, a panicky narrative took hold that recast the city as a kind of nonstop O.K. Corral. Proponents of a (now failed) cityhood movement in Buckhead seized on crime rates as a reason to split from Atlanta.

What many people don’t understand, says Volkan Topalli, a professor at Georgia State University who studies what drives criminal activity in urban environments, is that some of the crime is related to the way that we’ve developed properties. “There’s a lot of research on how to design the built environment to prevent crime from occurring,” he says. There are microlevel factors like whether sidewalks are well-lit or whether a building’s windows face the street where people can observe what’s going on below.

But how quickly neighborhoods are changing—a speed that is currently set to “turbo” in many areas of Atlanta—is also important. “If you have a row of empty lots, and, three years later, there are three buildings with 800 new residents and a bar, then you’re changing the dynamic of crime control,” Topalli says. Greater density—particularly with commercial businesses like bars or nightclubs—offers more opportunity for crime. When that change happens rapidly, police may not have time to reallocate resources quickly enough. Also, widespread relocation leads to less cohesive communities. “The developers’ concern is, Am I building a property where people will pay top dollar to live?” he says. “The idea of taking into account how it will affect crime is not at the top of their list.”

Other major factors changing life ITP

Greenspace galore
Parts of Atlanta are getting greener. In February, nonprofit Park Pride awarded a record-breaking $2.3 million to local parks, with 60 percent of those funds benefiting low-income neighborhoods. Also, major parks opened in 2021. Fifteen years after the city acquired the land surrounding a former quarry, Westside Park opened to the public at the end of last summer. Larger than both Piedmont Park and Chastain Park, it’s already become a citywide destination for cyclists, joggers, and children’s birthday parties. Two miles away in Vine City, Rodney Cook Sr. Park, which opened in June, offers 16 acres of community outdoor space in the shadow of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, making it a hot spot for tailgating. In Southeast Atlanta near I-285, the 216-acre Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, one of the city’s largest remaining mature forests, once slated to become an industrial park, was purchased by the city in 2020 and opened to the public last fall.

Safer bike lanes
More than two years ago, then Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a $5 million plan to triple the number of protected bike lanes within city limits, making 20 miles of intown streets—including some of the city’s most dangerous routes—safer for cyclists by the end of 2021. Although just 11 miles have been completed so far, according to the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, more could be on the way if Atlantans renew the T-SPLOST bill in May, which would set aside $300 million for transportation initiatives, including safer-streets projects.

Better living near transit
Want an easier car-free commute? In neighborhoods around Atlanta, former MARTA station parking lots are being transformed into new mixed-use housing complexes (aka transit-oriented developments, or TODs), offering Atlantans more options for living near public transit. TODs are now open or in development at 20 of 38 MARTA heavy-rail stations, and the transit agency is currently analyzing the potential for TOD at the sites of future MARTA expansion projects. Substantial numbers of these units are set aside for affordable housing, and last year, the agency announced they had struck a $100 million deal with Morgan Stanley and National Equity Fund to preserve existing affordable housing near stations.

More MARTA
Speaking of MARTA, the agency’s ambitious decades-long expansion project, funded by a half-penny sales tax approved in 2016 and federal grant money, continues rolling ahead. Later this year, MARTA will break ground on the city’s first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line, which will run from South Downtown through Summerhill to the BeltLine’s Southside trail. It’s one of several planned BRT routes, which will have dedicated lanes that allow buses to zoom past car traffic, a measure that may help turn the tide on bus stigma—although earlier this year, Campbellton Road neighbors objected when proposed light rail was scaled back to BRT. Other coming improvements include an expansion of the Atlanta streetcar, extension of heavy rail between Indian Creek and Stonecrest Mall, and upgrades to MARTA stations in Bankhead and Five Points.

Backyard apartment boom
In 2017, the Atlanta City Council tweaked zoning laws to allow accessory dwelling units (or ADUs) in many intown neighborhoods including Ormewood Park, Old Fourth Ward, and Inman Park. (Decatur approved a similar measure in 2015.) Sometimes referred to as in-law flats or carriage houses, ADUs are small secondary units that occupy the same lot as a single home. More than 100 units have been built so far. Although proposed legislation to expand where (and what type of) ADUs can be built failed in 2021, advocates vow to try again in 2022.

Reconnecting communities
More than half a century after the U.S. interstate system tore through many Black communities, the federal government has passed the Reconnecting Communities Act to repair some of the damage. Local proposals have included covering portions of the interstate—the Stitch, which envisions building a park atop the Downtown Connector, has already received a $900,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. But Atlanta’s portion of the allotted $1 billion will go only so far. (In comparison, the final price tag for Boston’s “Big Dig,” which routed large sections of highway into a tunnel, was $24 billion.) Less expensive proposals include improvements to the Sweet Auburn District, where problems such as air pollution, poor traffic flow, and dead space around the highway have plagued the neighborhood for decades. LeJuano Varnell, executive director of Sweet Auburn Works, an organization that works to preserve and promote the area’s legacy, says even planning dollars could be beneficial. “I know the challenges, I just need to find the best and brightest to help us think of how to mitigate those challenges.”

Meet the neighbors

John and Naquia Mitchell have lived in West End near the BeltLine for nine years.

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

John Mitchell
“We love the BeltLine personally and use the trail a lot. But the economic changes are so dramatic. We’re also seeing our taxes go up, and we’re seeing our older residents having to make tough decisions about whether they’re able to stay here. We are seeing a shift in demographics.”

Thomas Stukes
“I was looking to be in the midst of the hustle and bustle. If you walk down Edgewood Avenue at any time of day or night, there’s something going on. I love that. Then, there’s the history. I may be a white dude from the suburbs, but I appreciate that Atlanta is the birthplace of the civil rights movement in addition to being a very diverse city. I wanted to be closer to the heart of where that history and that culture comes from.”

Jennifer Bonner
“The size of the house [which Bonner, now an associate professor of architecture at Harvard, built in 2018; shown on the cover] is driven by the parcel size. The dimensions are 18 feet wide by 55 feet long. I believe there is a huge untapped potential for building on small intown parcels. While the footprint is small, the roof geometry, double height spaces, and natural lighting create an airy, lofty effect for the living spaces on the interior.”


OTP

Moving out of the city isn’t as easy as it used to be
By Josh Green

Hottest issue: The suburban housing market is white hot

These days, shopping for a home around the doughnut of suburban Atlanta isn’t like those rosy, laidback House Hunters episodes. It’s become so competitive that it feels like you’re hunting, well, inside the Perimeter.

Consider two typical examples: Last summer, so many would-be buyers arrived without appointments to tour a spacious home listed in Tucker that an agent had to stand guard at the door, prompting a screaming match that nearly turned into a fistfight. Across town in Woodstock, a couple in their early 30s with a newborn had an expiring apartment lease. When they spotted a cozy $339,000 cottage, they quickly submitted an offer. Their competition? Eighty other offers, up to $410,000, many agreeing to accept the home as is, with no contingencies. “These clients had about $40,000 in cash for a down payment and closing costs, too—no small amount of money,” says Dusty LaBossiere, their Century 21 Real Estate agent, who is based in Cumming. “They’re so demoralized, they ended up locking in another 12-month lease at a different apartment complex.”

In Atlanta’s suburbs, these are tough times for residents with a dream of homeownership, despite the region’s breadbasket of job opportunities. “The challenges of this market are like never before,” says Cynthia Lippert, a managing broker at Ansley Real Estate’s Alpharetta office, who has 33 years of experience in metro Atlanta. “It’s a culmination of so many things at the same time. It’s mind-blowing.”

Part of what’s driving the competition is influxes of people from pricier coastal markets, such as New York and California, and northern states with higher taxes from Illinois to Connecticut. Historically low interest rates and pandemic-induced claustrophobia have also fueled demand. (Interestingly, though anecdotal evidence of Atlantans abandoning the city abounds—Mayor Rusty Paul says about 70 percent of new Sandy Springs residents he meets have fled Buckhead—so far, recent population data has not reflected a mass exodus here as it has from larger cities like New York and Chicago.)

The biggest challenge, bar none, is housing supply—or lack thereof. As of January, metro Atlanta’s inventory had dropped to less than a month’s worth, a record low. That means, theoretically, if houses stopped being listed or built tomorrow, the region would have zero homes to sell in a couple of weeks. Existing homeowners, who could cash out for profits beyond their wildest dreams, are still reluctant to list. “They have nowhere to go,” says Lippert. “Moving to a three-month rental apartment while waiting for a home? Not many people want to do that.”

Scarcity, accompanied by one of the longest bull runs in U.S. housing-market history, has punched prices up—and up. Between December 2020 and the end of 2021, the number of condos, townhomes, and houses sold across the 11-county metro had dipped by more than 11 percent. The median home sales price, meanwhile, ballooned by almost 22 percent, up to $378,000.

Compounding matters are hedge-fund buyers such as Offerpad and Opendoor. Research firm CoreLogic recently concluded that, in the second half of 2021, 43 percent of home sales across the metro were acquired by investors—the highest rate of any major U.S. market. “Your average American is now competing with Wall Street to buy the same inventory,” says LaBossiere. “It’s created even more of a dumpster fire [here] than a lot of metro areas that don’t have that money flowing in.”

From Grayson to Douglasville, Lithonia to Canton, many homes acquired by investors are being repurposed as rentals. Correspondingly, suburban rents are climbing, with the number of $800 or less rental options plummeting by 49 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the most recent available stats from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Gwinnett Board of Commissioners chair Nicole Love Hendrickson, who also heads the ARC’s affordable-housing task force, says finding Gwinnett rentals cheaper than $1,200 is virtually impossible, and that the pandemic housing crunch has forced many renters entirely out of the metro. “We’re talking about people who earn under $50,000 annually, that’s what they can afford,” she says. “That’s our teachers, our police, our firefighters, our nurses, those that work in retail. Our largest industry in Gwinnett is retail.”

Across the metro, homebuilding has also not kept pace with demand. According to Hendrickson, not a single new home was built in Gwinnett in the $200,000 price range—the threshold someone earning $50,000 annually can reasonably afford—in the past two years. Local homebuilders, who used to provide plenty of affordable product in metro Atlanta, have never rebounded from the Recession. And pandemic-induced supply-chain shortages have challenged all new construction. However, data compiled by StorageCafé implies more new homes are on the way. In 2020 and 2021, metro Atlanta had its highest numbers of permits issued for single-family homes in a decade.

In Sandy Springs, all 38 square miles of the city is built out, which makes creating more affordable housing especially difficult, says Paul. Numerous apartment complexes have recently been sold and upgraded, and that spells even higher rents. “As part of any redevelopment, we want housing that’s affordable to our workforce,” says Paul. “They’re just as much a part of this community as anybody, but they’re getting squeezed.” Land is at such a premium that $750,000 houses are being bulldozed to construct palatial spreads worth upwards of $3 million. “That’s the kind of trend we’re seeing more than anything,” says the mayor. “I tell everybody right now that red clay in Sandy Springs is more valuable than gold in Dahlonega.”

Major challenge: Getting around

When Gwinnett County voters rejected a new tax to fund transit expansion in 2020, albeit by a razor-thin margin, the county’s newly elected Board of Commissioners chair, Nicole Love Hendrickson, was crestfallen. “We really could have met a substantial transit gap in Gwinnett,” she says. “That kind of brought us back to the drawing board.”

Outside the Perimeter, as is true inside it, government officials and heads of agencies such as MARTA are grappling with transportation infrastructure and planning that many perceive as insufficient. (Hendrickson points to one example: Until recently, Gwinnett County Transit’s bus system stopped running at 8 p.m.—a significant hurdle for retail workers, especially.) But encouraging signs for metro Atlantans who can’t afford cars or prefer living auto-free are on the horizon: MARTA hopes to build a 16-mile bus rapid transit route into Clayton County by 2026 that could transport 6,000 people per day, and possibly another BRT route up Ga. Highway 400. Cobb County recently gave the go-ahead to planning and engineering studies for blending similar bus routes with cars in new toll lanes planned on I-285. Gwinnett is at work on an overarching Transit Development Plan, while beefing up microtransit options (think: an app-based service like Uber or Lyft, but with county vehicles) and adding a bus route along U.S. Highway 78 for the first time, among other routes.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Region Transit Link Authority, or ATL, is expected to complete a regional transit plan by this summer, outlining improvements across multiple transit agencies and 13 counties. Stay tuned. ­

Other major factors changing life OTP

Working from home
Prior to the advent of Covid-19, employees across the Atlanta region reported working from home an average of .8 days per week. As of October, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission’s latest survey, the number of WFH days remained more than four times that, at just over three days per week. Welcome to the Big Remote, which appears to be sticking around.

The majority of metro Atlantans who “were forced into teleworking at the beginning of the pandemic have become very accustomed to it after two years, and have experienced the benefit of not having a stressful commute while saving money on fuel and parking,” says Roz Tucker, ARC’s managing director of the Mobility Services Group and Georgia Commute Options, which has pushed for more flexible work options for years. “Many employers have also experienced a workforce that’s still been productive and engaged without being in an office.”

The region’s employment rate had returned to prepandemic levels by July, but overall traffic counts remained below 2019 levels at key checkpoints as of September, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation. (That included a 14 percent traffic dip, the largest recorded, on Ga. Highway 400 just south of Roswell.)

The TomTom Traffic Index, a measure of worldwide urban congestion, shows that average travel times ticked up by three minutes across the metro in 2021. But traffic jams remained down 21 percent versus 2019 during the morning rush, and 17 percent in the evenings. That helped metro Atlantans waste one-third less time in gridlock on average—though it was still 81 hours, or more than three full days—last year versus prepandemic times, per TomTom’s data.

ARC’s findings point to another indication that WFH culture has caught on: 40 percent of people surveyed said they’d quit their jobs if required to return to offices five days a week.

City centers
A few years ago, Teri Haler noticed a metro-wide trend and came to her bosses in Conyers city government with a simple message: “We have to get more competitive.”

Haler, the Conyers Convention and Visitors Bureau’s destination development manager, got busy doing what her title implies: She started recruiting a local bike shop to move into the Rockdale County seat’s historic Olde Town soon after a 3.6-mile PATH trail opened. That energy helped attract complementary destination businesses such as a wine boutique, a do-it-yourself candle shop, and a soapery, alongside a dozen longstanding restaurants and an all-ages art studio. The city added free parking spaces, designated an open-container entertainment district in 2019, strung party lights over a main drag, and began hosting open-streets extravaganzas on summer nights. “It matters so much what goes in even one storefront,” says Haler. “They all need to complement each other, so that people stay longer.”

That same scene, with localized variations, has played out across metro Atlanta in recent years, with historic city cores being reenergized and new ones master-planned from scratch. The pandemic has only heightened suburban appetites for convenient places to walk or bike. “It’s what everyone wants now, that walkability,” says Ansley Real Estate managing broker Cynthia Lippert. “That’s why Milton and Alpharetta are booming, because of Crabapple and Avalon. And Woodstock. And now, they want to build an Avalon-type development in Canton. Halcyon in Forsyth [County]—everyone’s flocking there. And it’s driving the appreciation up.” Avalon’s managers, North American Properties, credit isolation-era initiatives such as drive-in concerts and strict cleanliness practices with helping the mixed-use district log a record number of shoppers since early 2021 and keep multifamily complexes about 94 percent rented. With retail space “being virtually 100 percent leased, we have a challenge finding space for inquiring tenants,” says NAP’s Adam Schwegman.

The push for less anonymity and more functionality in city centers extends beyond blockbuster developments like Avalon. Consider the 75-acre Cumming City Center project, which is expected to open this spring with a “main-street Americana” feel; the injection of new food and beverage establishments in Stone Mountain Village; and, in the western suburbs, Powder Springs’ plans to add a cutting-edge skatepark, new city hall, and brewery to its historic downtown.

Ever-growing diversity
The suburban stereotype of immaculate lawns, oversized houses, and ethnic homogeneity that reflected Atlanta’s white flight half a century ago has long vanished. At least in terms of ethnicity.

Long before the onset of Covid-19, the metro’s suburbs were quickly diversifying. Formerly rural Clayton County, for example, was 81 percent white in 1980; following decades of rapid growth, Clayton had changed to 47 percent white by 2015, per the Atlanta Regional Commission. The upscale Fulton County city of Johns Creek, where median home values have topped $540,000, saw nonwhite people become the majority in 2020, fueled by a surge of new Hispanic residents in particular. Across all Cobb County Schools grades K-12, the number of students who identify as Asian, Black, or Hispanic is nearly double that of white students.

Atlanta’s most populated suburban county, Gwinnett, flipped to majority-minority status back in 2010. Now home to nearly 1 million people, Gwinnett enjoys the state’s largest Asian and Hispanic/Latinx populations. The majority of students in Gwinnett’s school system are Hispanic/Latinx, and one in five people living in the county today was born in another country. “I think people flock to Gwinnett County for what we’re known for and the diversity that’s already here—the schools and the quality of life,” says Board of Commissioners chair Nicole Love Hendrickson. “That’s been a steady trend.”

Meet the neighbors

Noelle Joy (center) surrounded by her family

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Noelle Joy
“We were in the City of Decatur for 15 years. It was a small bungalow, built in 1946, getting tight with two teenagers. Plus, my father and half-sister, a teenager in high school, were needing to move in with us. I always had Tucker in the back of my mind, but moving even 15 minutes outside I-285 seemed so far out. We totally love it out here, though, and the extra 10 to 15 minutes in the car is no big deal. We took a big hit with restaurants—that’s my biggest complaint. Everything else is great. Supernice neighbors. Great high school. It’s a lot quieter, way less street noise, airplane traffic, you name it. We have herds of deer running through the neighborhood, lots of wildlife. People say hi more often. It’s been a superpositive experience overall.”

Vesselina Kotzeva
“When I think of Gwinnett, the first thing that comes to mind are childhood memories of driving north on I-85 and passing the sign that literally read, ‘Gwinnett is great. Success lives here.’ More than a decade later, I can say this holds true, based on my own experiences of having both lived and worked here. Gwinnett provides access to the big city, while allowing for a quick retreat to a more suburban, small-town feel. For those like me who enjoy the simple things, like the great outdoors, Gwinnett never disappoints.

“The outdoor area in the Duluth Town Green is pretty neat. Gwinnett offers a family-oriented, diverse community where everyone belongs.”


EXURBS

What if you worked in Atlanta and lived somewhere else?
By Betsy Riley

Real-estate developer Mack Reese works in Midtown, but he’s always preferred the small-town lifestyle he enjoyed growing up in Albany, Georgia. In the late ’90s, he started commuting from Newnan, which soon felt “too suburban”; so, his family moved further out to LaGrange, his wife’s hometown, in 2004. Lately, now that more people are working remotely, he’s not the only one making that 70-mile trek up I-85.

“Twenty years ago, living so far away was not as accepted in the corporate world. You still had to be present at the office,” Reese says. Now, the pandemic has done what technology had only started to do: empowered people to work remotely. “Today, corporations not only allow people to work out of the office but sometimes encourage it,” he says.

In fact, Reese is such a believer that he’s developing a new community, Crossvine Village, with 750 single-family homes, in LaGrange. Atlanta expats are a key target market. He’s betting that metro-area buyers will find prices starting around $300,000 compelling.

Reese finds that residents leaving the city now prefer small-town life over the swim/tennis neighborhoods of the ’80s. “People don’t want to live in the traditional suburban neighborhood,” he says. “They want to be somewhere where they have a town center that they can walk to and see friends.” Bonus points for communities like LaGrange with authentic histories.

The same forces are driving demand for second homes, which are more frequently morphing into primary residences. By the end of 2021, demand for them was up 77 percent from prepandemic levels, according to Redfin. The popularity of golf communities has also rebounded after years of nationwide decline (200 courses closed in 2017 alone). The Cliffs communities near Lake Keowee, for example, saw a 161 percent increase in sales volume in the first year of the pandemic. In February, Nicholas Brown, a real-estate agent with Compass in Atlanta, says there were only 20 properties for sale in Reynolds Plantation at Lake Oconee—which has 4,500 homes—and five of those were condos. Brown, who lives in Brookhaven, adds that he personally is spending more and more time at his “second” home in Serenbe.

Nationally, there’s also been an uptick in the number of people moving to rural areas in the last decade. After living in Marietta for 10 years, Annette and Jared Thurmon moved to a farm outside Adairsville in 2016. He is a marketing professional who travels out of Atlanta, and she is a nurse who, until recently, commuted to Northside Hospital. They tend five acres, with a garden and lots of animals, from chickens and guinea hens to alpacas and goats.

“People like to use the phrase slow living. It’s not slow in terms of the things you do, but it does kind of make you step back. It’s not instant gratification. You have to wait for the plants to grow and produce fruit. Both of us have thought we’re nicer, more patient people since moving out here.” —Annette Thurmon of Azure Farm

Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

“When we moved out here, our whole family thought we were crazy,” says Annette. “But when everything happened with Covid, I realized how grateful I was to be a little further out. When the world was almost literally falling apart, [I felt] maybe there’s something I can control a little bit. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. I’m able to grow some of my own food. That’s reassuring in a way.” ­

House of the future

Courtesy of Chip Wade

Expert craftsman, TV host, and producer Chip Wade has been known for outside-the-box thinking since he was on HGTV’s Designed to Sell. Lately, he’s been putting his novel ideas and new products to work at Pinhoti Peak, a showhouse he’s building for his family near Chatsworth. Check out some of the home’s innovative features below.

Wade favors smaller, more efficient houses on one level. This home’s streamlined rectangular shape simplifies construction, makes it less expensive, and showcases building materials. Wall sections, ceiling panels, and steel beams are created off-site so they can be delivered and popped into place—eliminating the need for painting and extensive framing. There are no interior load-bearing walls.

Courtesy of Chip Wade

Courtesy of Chip Wade

Though the house is 3,700 square feet, it sleeps 16. There are two self-contained apartments in addition to the main living quarters (one on the terrace level and the other built into the slope below). Each has its own kitchen. The Wades can use the entire house or rent out parts of it while still enjoying the property themselves.

The entire building is heated with radiant heat (think heated bathroom floors). Subfloor panels have slots for tubing, which delivers warm water throughout the home. Though pricier on the front end, radiant heat saves energy and is less likely to distribute allergens than traditional forced-air systems. Walls are double insulated.

The water heater is a hybrid between a tank and a tankless system. The backup tank ensures there is always enough hot water for the five bathrooms.

Courtesy of Chip Wade

Placing vanities in the master bedroom and in open hallways outside water closets allows more private space for bathrooms. The master bath has a large walk-in shower, a freestanding tub, and two closets.

A kitchen sink is located on a freestanding peninsula so that it can be accessible from both sides at once. A faucet will hang from the ceiling for the same reason. To minimize the spread of germs, all faucets and light switches will be touchless.

The pool is one container. All equipment will be built into the unit, so that it arrives ready to plug into gas and electricity. A four- by eight-foot window allows an underwater view of the mountains.


A look at metro Atlanta’s housing markets

Each shaded area on the map represents a different submarket—see below for a color-coded guide

By the Atlanta Regional Commission

MAP LEGEND

Submarket 1      White  
Submarket 2      Aqua  

Submarket 3      Black  
Submarket 4      Orange  
Submarket 5       Red  
Submarket 6      Light pink  
Submarket 7      Yellow  
Submarket 8      Dark pink  
Submarket 9       Indigo   
Submarket 10      Green

Submarket 1
Core neighborhoods with mostly higher-priced homes and higher than average rents, consisting of a mix of largely older single-family homes and both older and newer multifamily housing

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $398,900, up 61.40 percent since 2013

Trends

  • Highest proportion of multifamily units, adding an additional 11,000 since 2010
  • Fastest increase in ownership rates among nonrural areas, albeit with only about 200 owner-occupied single-family units having been added since 2010

Submarket 2 
Neighborhoods near the city core and employment corridors, with a mix of newer and older higher-priced homes and higher rents

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $320,000, up 46.80 percent since 2013

Trends

  • Mix of newer and older single-family and multifamily housing units for both renters and owners
  • The neighborhoods in this submarket are exhibiting home-sales price increases at a rate similar to that of the region as a whole
  • 50 percent total rental units; single-family rentals have increased by 35 percent since 2010
  • 48 percent of total units are multifamily

Submarket 3
Rapidly changing urban neighborhoods with the region’s oldest homes and quickest increases in home-sale prices

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $218,000, up 384.40 percent since 2013

Trends

  • Neighborhoods in this submarket have experienced, by far, the quickest increases in home prices
  • Highest proportion of renters
  • Second quickest decline in home ownership
  • Greatest decline in proportion of nonwhite residents
  • Greatest proportion of single-family rental units

Submarket 4
Lowest-priced urban neighborhoods with mostly older single-family and multifamily units, housing both renters and a rapidly declining number of owners

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $157,500, up 207.40 percent since 2013

Trends

  • Submarket with the lowest median home-sale price
  • Quickest decline in homeownership
  • Rates of home sale price increases are significantly quicker than the regional average (while the actual increase is on par)
  • Only submarket to have a net loss of housing units since 2010, more than 3,000 of which were multifamily
  • Greatest proportion of nonwhite residents

Submarket 5
Moderate- to higher-priced suburban neighborhoods near employment centers with a mix of single-family and multifamily units housing both renters and owners

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $292,000, up 57.80 percent from 2013

Trends

  • Experienced the greatest net gain in housing units, nearly half of which were multifamily
  • Experienced the greatest relative increase in single-family rentals
  • The neighborhoods in this submarket are exhibiting home-sale price increases similar to that of the region as a whole

Submarket 6
Moderate- to higher-priced suburban neighborhoods consisting almost entirely of single-family homes

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $350,000, up 48.90 percent since 2013

Trends

  • Second lowest proportion of renters, albeit with a 70 percent increase in the number of single-family rentals since 2010
  • Only submarket outside of rural areas to experience a net gain in single-family owner households
  • The neighborhoods in this submarket are exhibiting home-sale price increases slightly below to that of the region as a whole

Submarket 7
Lower-priced suburban neighborhoods with both single-family owners and a large, rapidly-increasing number of single-family renters

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $202,000, up 104.00 percent since 2013

Trends

  • Greatest increase in the proportion of renters; of the added renter households since 2010, more than two-thirds were into single-family units
  • Greatest decline in net ownership, having lost more than 14,000 owner-occupied units since 2010
  • The home-sale price increases in this submarket area are slightly below the regional average
  • Second largest increase in poverty among the submarkets

Submarket 8
Lower-priced, moderately sized suburban homes in neighborhoods mostly consisting of homeowners, albeit with an increasing proportion of renters

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $173,500, up 104.10 percent from 2013

Trends

  • The home-sale prices per square foot are the lowest and have increased the slowest among all the submarkets
  • Nearly a quarter of units are multifamily, albeit with practically no net gain in multifamily units since 2010

Submarket 9
Lower-priced rural areas with large lots and mostly single-family housing stock

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $227,000, up 78.70 percent from 2013

Trends
• Mostly owners but with a quickly increasing number of renters

• More than a quarter of households are renters

• Largest increase in the proportion of nonwhite residents since 2010

• The home-sale prices in this submarket are not increasing as quickly compared to the region as a whole

Submarket 10
Rural areas with generally newer, higher-priced, large owner-occupied single-family homes on large lots

2020 Submarket median home-sale price: $355,000, up 61.40 percent from 2013

Trends

  • Most rapid and largest net increase in single-family owners
  • Only 10 percent of households are renters, reflecting a modest increase since 2010
  • Smallest proportion of nonwhite residents
  • The home-sale prices in this submarket are increasing somewhat slower than the regional average

Data and maps from the Metro Atlanta Housing Strategy, courtesy of the Atlanta Regional Commission, metroatlhousing.org

This article appears in our April 2022 issue.

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