Can we still afford Atlanta?

10 ways to make Atlanta more affordable

Can we still afford Atlanta?
Co-living is one answer to the affordability crunch

Illustration by Laurene Boglio

Issue more housing vouchers
The federal government estimates that nearly 130,000 metro Atlantans who live on very low incomes spend more than half their income on rent or live in unsuitable conditions (or both). The fastest and most efficient way to help some of them is with Housing Choice Vouchers. This federally funded program managed by Atlanta Housing, the city’s housing authority, subsidizes most of the rent of a person or family living on a low income by paying the landlord of an affordable property directly, with the tenant covering the remainder. Vouchers follow a person, which is helpful if they need to move to be closer to work or for schools. In Atlanta, an estimated 8,900 households use the program. The bad news: The waiting list for vouchers is 26,000 names long, in part because Congress won’t increase funding to meet the need. In addition, finding a landlord who will accept vouchers can prove challenging. Despite a recent Atlanta City Council ordinance forbidding landlords from rejecting tenants because they have vouchers, state law still allows the often overlooked form of housing discrimination. The city could also consider following the lead of Washington, D.C., and creating its own, locally funded voucher program.

Bring back courtyard apartments
High-rises are an obvious solution to increase housing supply, but we shouldn’t overlook smaller solutions. Duplexes and courtyard apartments, the kind you see in neighborhoods like Virginia-Highland and Midtown, blend into the surrounding area. To housing experts, they’re “gentle density,” and, by adding less expensive options, they give people living on lower incomes an opportunity to live in desirable neighborhoods. Until recently, Atlanta’s zoning laws—the wonky (and highly political) system of rules that determine who can build what and where­—had banned the construction of new “gentle density.” (Between 2004 and 2014, the city lost more than 9,000 residential units in multifamily buildings like this.) The city is in the middle of a multiyear overhaul of its zoning code and, last January, made it easier for developers to build what’s commonly called “missing-middle” housing. For the effort to succeed, however, it requires enterprising developers and residents to get used to the idea of a little more density next door. While Atlanta is far from following Minneapolis’s lead and eliminating single-family zoning—in hopes that developers will raze old houses and eyesores and build three-flats or courtyard apartments to encourage density—there are recent proposals to build low-rise multifamily units in some intown neighborhoods, like Edgewood.

Support programs that help people stay in their homes
It’s important to not just offer tax credits to build affordable housing. Homestead exemptions and providing assistance to help homeowners fix up their houses are two ways to keep people in place. For example, Invest Atlanta—the city’s economic development authority—offers fix-’em-up programs for seniors, veterans, people living with a disability, and those who have lived in their homes for 15 years or more. Structured as forgivable loans, these programs cover basic health and safety repairs, from removing mold to replacing plumbing. Such small-scale fixes can be key to keeping a house habitable. Several organizations—including HouseProud, Rebuilding Together, and Habitat for Humanity—offer similar programs but need more support. The city should also help educate homeowners on the real value of their home—and stymie investors trying to buy their property for less than it’s worth.

Protecting renters can be a bit more complicated. A recent study, which looked at eviction rates in 50 U.S. cities, placed Atlanta’s in the top sixth percentile, a problem hitting low-income black neighborhoods the hardest. “Rent control is helpful but unrealistic politically,” says Dan Immergluck, a professor at Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute and housing affordability expert. “Something more realistic is the city giving more resources for emergency assistance to renters, a simple grant program, something like Midtown Assistance [Center].” MAC—alongside two dozen partners, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and Midtown Alliance—offers rent and utility assistance to renters in financial crisis.

Otherwise, Immergluck suggests lowering tax assessments for landlords who offer affordable rentals—or providing them the same kind of incentives given to developers of bigger, market-rate projects.

Get hospitals involved
A lesser-known provision of the Affordable Care Act is that nonprofit hospitals are required to study the health needs of their communities every three years. In a visionary model praised across the country, Atlanta’s major health systems—Grady Health System, Kaiser Permanente, Piedmont Healthcare, Emory Healthcare, WellStar, and more—have joined together on these assessments. Working through Georgia State University’s Atlanta Regional Collaborative for Health Improvement, they have targeted a surprising priority for hospitals: affordable housing. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta indicates that social determinants such as housing, air and water quality, and transit have as much influence over a person’s health as obvious factors like diet, exercise, and medical care. This shift in providers’ mindsets is “as radical as it was at the turn of the last century, when we started encouraging people to wash their hands,” says Kathryn Lawler, ARCHI’s executive director. Kaiser, for example, has invested $50 million in a low-interest loan fund for affordable housing developers in any of its markets. ARCHI members will spend this year defining an action plan, which will likely include incentives such as grants, low-interest loans, land swaps (as health systems often control extensive real-estate holdings), and neighborhood clinics.

Can we still afford Atlanta?
Building more housing is key.

Photograph by Dan Reynolds Photography/Getty Images

Expand the role of nonprofits
One outcome of revitalizing a neighborhood—making it safer, with more amenities—means it becomes unaffordable to the people who were already living there. Rents go up, along with assessments (and, inevitably, property taxes). The nonprofit Westside Future Fund, with more than $25 million in philanthropic funding, has been tackling that problem directly in neighborhoods such as Vine City, English Avenue, and Ashview Heights. One approach? Paying a homeowner’s tax increases brought about by gentrification. So far, 113 homeowners have been approved for the program. The WFF’s laser focus over two square miles—an area thick with speculators, thanks in part to the construction of Mercedes-Benz Stadium but also to the growing popularity of intown living—has also led to the WFF purchasing more than 200 multifamily units and nearly 100 single-family homes. (In 2016, only 8 percent of homes here were owner-occupied.) Homes are either razed (to make way for new construction) or renovated and then listed for sale for no more than $250,000 to buyers who meet income requirements. The WFF also focuses on renters. As WFF executive director John Ahmann points out, 1,500 renters in their focus area are making less than $25,000 a year. Most are renting from private investors, but as the WFF makes more and more acquisitions, the quality (and affordability) of rental properties is gradually increasing. The Atlanta Land Trust is tackling the shrinking affordable housing stock near the BeltLine in a different way. Using charitable donations, the community land trust acquires land and housing, retaining ownership of the land but selling houses to buyers whose incomes don’t exceed 80 percent of the area median income. The buyer can sell the house and enjoy some of the equity built up but can sell only to another low-income buyer—and at a discounted price.

Give your workers a raise
In Georgia, an estimated 53,000 workers earn at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25—or $1,160 per month for full-time work, well below the cost of an average one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta. By raising that figure to $15, housing advocates say, a full-time employee could earn $600 a week—enough to afford a place to live without working extra jobs. A UCLA study found that raising the minimum wage would reduce poverty without slashing jobs or worker hours—the opposite of what other studies have found. The impact could be acute in metro Atlanta, where between 2010 and 2017, rents increased by 35 percent while wages only rose by 15 percent. “There’s no way to build housing for what people are paid,” says Elora Raymond, a Georgia Tech professor who studies housing affordability. “It’s not just that we have expensive construction or expensive land; it’s that we have a lot of people who make so little that, no matter what they build, they can’t afford it. Part of housing isn’t just vouchers or policies; it’s where inequality shows up.”

A MARTA train at West End station.

Photograph by Marilyn Nieves via iStock/Getty Images Plus

Make it easier to build near transit—and with less parking
In congested and auto-dependent Atlanta, the areas surrounding MARTA stations should be packed with apartments and condos, particularly in intown neighborhoods.

After the Great Recession, MARTA leaders began selling off unnecessary parking lots and dead space surrounding its intown stations to developers for mixed-use developments. Those projects allocate a minimum of 20 percent of units for seniors or people living at 80 percent of the area median income (roughly $44,000 for an individual). Six projects are underway, including mixed-use developments at Edgewood-Candler Park, King Memorial, and Avondale stations, and more are in the pipeline. More than 70 percent of households in Atlanta spend 45 percent of their income on housing and transportation costs. If, by living near MARTA, you can give up the cost of a car, you can free up more of your income.

Additionally, housing experts say plans to build bus rapid transit—extra-long buses which enjoy a dedicated lane and can be built much faster and sometimes at one-third of the cost of rail—along major roads in the city should be expanded. Doing so could serve two purposes: getting people out of traffic and sparking density along major thoroughfares like Piedmont Road, Cheshire Bridge, and Metropolitan Parkway. “If I could, I’d build bus rapid transit on every major road in intown Atlanta,” says Ben King, an affordable housing developer and advocate. “It is the fastest, cheapest way to build a transit network that can actually reduce the cost of development.”

With new access to transit, we’ll also need less parking. According to Kimley-Horn, a transportation planning firm, a single space in a parking deck can cost up to $20,000 to build—a cost that falls on renters (not to mention wastes valuable intown space on automobiles). It’s time to do away with laws that require developers include a minimum number of parking spaces in their projects. Or at least unbundle the cost of parking from monthly rent, therefore incentivizing people to put one less automobile on the road.

Go back to living the dorm life
Affordable, single-family homes may be disappearing in the heart of cities, but then, so are traditional families. In 1950, nuclear families represented 43 percent of households—now, it’s only 20 percent. Nearly 30 percent of households are single adults living alone. One response to this demographic shift has been the reemergence of coliving, from multiple adults sharing a house to apartments arranged like student dorms. “We believe density is one of the answers to affordability,” says Michael Gamble, who directs Georgia Tech’s master of architecture program. Gamble points to the efficiency of sharing not just amenities like pools and gyms but necessities like kitchens, cars, even daycare. New York developer Common, which has 32 coliving properties in six cities, has announced a partnership with local coliving developer Domos to build a 345-bed project in Chosewood Park, slated to open in late 2020. They’re targeting the city’s influx of new residents in their 20s, noting that the number of renters earning $50,000 to $75,000 who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent has more than tripled in the last five years here. Rents will start at about $1,140 for a private bedroom/bath in a suite, which includes furniture, utilities, cleaning, and community events. Fifteen percent of beds will be set aside for people making 80 percent of the area median income. Atlanta is the first major U.S. city to provide affordable-housing incentives to developers of this type of project.

Smaller space, bigger price tag: $288 is the price per square foot in Cabbagetown. $249 is the price per square foot in Buckhead. (Source: Redfin)

Incentivize homeowners to build tiny houses
It’s great that the city of Atlanta committed in February to spending $100 million on affordable housing. Might we suggest a way to make a portion of that money go really far? The city should offload some of the task to its residents—by making it worth their while to quickly build hundreds of units themselves, namely “tiny houses” or the less delightful-sounding “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs). The city currently allows them in some zoning districts, ones that already allow multifamily housing and a higher level of density. The real opportunity, though—both for homeowners and for renters in search of a quality, affordable place to live in a desirable neighborhood—is helping homeowners across the city build (or renovate) and rent tiny houses and ADUs in their own back yards. That’s what Decatur did back in 2015, in an attempt to replicate some of its “missing-middle” housing. Decatur’s rules for ADUs and tiny houses are reasonable: a minimum lot size, a second unit that takes up no more than 30 percent of the yard and is no more than 800 square feet, and an owner who resides in the main property. To avoid resident concerns that the units will just turn into short-term rentals—and to keep tiny houses and ADUs truly affordable—Atlanta should establish what’s an affordable rent and offer a reasonable property-tax exemption in exchange for owners not using the unit as an Airbnb. The loss in tax revenue would be less than the cost of the city building, or incentivizing developers to build, actual affordable housing units. In the process, the income from the rental would make Atlanta more affordable for existing homeowners, too.

Make affordable units a requirement for developers
Want to create more affordable housing? Well, you could do what Portland, Oregon, did back in 2016: Make every developer who wants to build new condo or apartment units within the city set aside a percentage of those units for buyers or renters making under a certain amount. The move, called inclusionary zoning, makes sense on one hand, since new construction is invariably the most expensive that comes on the market. But beware the law of unintended consequences. After Portland’s law went into effect, the number of new applications for building dropped 64 percent, by one study, with developers recoiling at the idea of being told how to price any of their units. That hasn’t stopped Atlanta from passing its own version of inclusionary zoning, focused on the desirable real estate abutting the BeltLine. In the year after the rule went into effect, WABE reported, only two projects were approved in the zones. But today, city officials say that, of the nearly 5,500 units in the zone either already built or in the pipeline, more than 1,100 are earmarked for lower-income residents. City Council member Andre Dickens, who pushed the inclusionary zoning along the BeltLine, believes it should be expanded citywide.

These articles appear in our April 2020 issue and were written prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Atlanta.