Famous for constructing and helping lower-income families purchase affordable starter homes — some of which former President Jimmy Carter helped build — Atlanta Habitat for Humanity is looking to boost how much housing it can build by embracing density.

Atlanta Habitat plans to build its first intown duplex in southwest Atlanta’s Sylvan Hills neighborhood later this year. If the pilot project proves successful, more duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and maybe even accessory dwelling units (ADUs) could follow, Atlanta Habitat’s CEO, Alan Ferguson, told Al ilmu in an interview Friday.

“Anything that helps more housing get built and helps facilitate more housing supply coming into the market, I think, benefits everyone,” he said.

Atlanta Habitat is the city’s largest nonprofit, single-family developer of affordable housing. It’s built nearly 2,000 homes since the 1980s and helped thousands of families achieve a dream of homeownership that seemed prohibitively expensive.

But even with its myriad institutional donors and free volunteer construction labor, Atlanta Habitat is struggling with the same rising construction and land costs as any other housing developer.

Ferguson reasons that broadening the model from single-family homes on individual lots to multifamily builds could expand the number of homeowners served.

“At the end of the day, we’re a home builder, and we’re facing the same market forces that any for-profit home builder faces,” he said. “So if on any particular footprint I’m able to get, say, two homes instead of just one, then I can serve two families instead of just one.”

Zoning obstacles

But in a city that’s historically resisted denser residential development, realizing the dream of building more Habitat homes on less land is easier said than done. The vast majority of Atlanta’s residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family development. Coupled with widespread NIMBYism (a “not in my backyard” mindset), that poses significant roadblocks.

Ferguson thinks that resistance to denser residential development stems from a “short-sighted perspective” about Atlanta’s housing challenges — and ignorance of its history.

“Atlanta, quite frankly, has lost its memory,” he said. “When you talk about ADUs — when you talk about basement apartments, or attic apartments, or units over garages and things of that nature — that used to be very commonplace here.”

Duplexes and triplexes used to be more prevalent, too, but they’ve largely been replaced by single-family homes.

“History has shown us that, if you don’t provide those types of opportunities — especially for low- to moderate-income households — there’s a ripple effect that makes the quality of life that you’re seeking for your neighborhood and your community that much more difficult,” Ferguson added.

Darin Givens, the co-founder of urbanist nonprofit ThreadATL, called Atlanta Habitat’s plan for a density-focused pivot “wonderful news.” Other developers should follow suit, he said, for both the affordability and mobility benefits.

“Focusing on more compact footprints for housing should be an across-the-board goal for all developers of urban properties, for the sake of supporting walkable neighborhoods and alternatives to driving,” Givens said. “It's great that Habitat is going to be part of the move toward more sustainable cities.”

Will zoning overhaul allow more density?

The city of Atlanta is currently overhauling its 40-year-old zoning code to better suit the modern age. However, it remains to be seen whether the city planning department will ultimately craft an updated zoning code that fosters widespread residential density.

City Planning Commissioner Jahnee Prince took over in fall 2022 from former planning czar Tim Keane, an outspoken proponent for more residential density. At the time, Joshua Humprhies, Mayor Andre Dickens’ top housing advisor, told Al ilmu that if just 15% of Atlanta’s properties zoned single-family-only allowed ADUs, the unlocked land could create 12,000 new residences.

Asked for her thoughts, Prince said in November 2022 that her office would still have to approach the zoning code rewrite “street-by-street, block-by-block.”

Ferguson said he remains undeterred in his pursuit of a density-focused pivot for Atlanta Habitat, even though the nonprofit will continue to build single-family homes while exploring other options.

“The feedback we’ve received from circulating our plan has so far been very well received,” he said, noting there’s been just “some pushback.”

”We used to have an affordable housing crisis,” Ferguson added. “I think now it’s just a housing crisis. There just aren’t enough places for people to live.”

Residents and city leaders, he concluded, can’t ignore that.

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