This post was originally published at The Cost of Living Project

Here’s how the City of Atlanta is trying to build (or preserve) 20,000 affordable housing units by 2030

An illustration of a crane moving a house

When it comes to affordable housing, Atlanta seems to be moving backward. According to a recent study commissioned by the Urban Land Institute Atlanta, the metro’s core counties—DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett—have lost 130,000 units priced under $1,000 a month in the last five years.

About 40 percent of the affordable housing in the core region is in the City of Atlanta, where Mayor Andre Dickens has promised to build or preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2030. How does he plan to do that—and is it working?

Okay, first: Where are we right now?

According to the City’s affordable housing tracker, developers have completed 4,522 affordable units since 2022. About 60 percent of those are for residents making 60 percent of the area median income (in 2023, that was $55,140 for a family of three), and about 25 percent are for residents making 80 percent of the AMI ($73,520 for a family of three). With another 4,972 units in the works, Atlanta is on track for 9,494 units out of the promised 20,000.

We’re almost halfway there. How is the City getting developers to build more?

One approach is inclusionary zoning, which draws up zones where new apartment buildings must set aside some affordable units. The city has three inclusionary zones: around the BeltLine, between Northside Drive and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard, and near Westside Park. If a developer wants to build 10 or more units in any of those zones, they’re required to set aside a certain percentage as affordable: 15 percent of the new units must be priced for households earning at or below 80 percent of the AMI, or 10 percent must be priced for households earning at or below 60 percent of the AMI. In one of the inclusionary zones, developers can set aside just 5 percent of the new units and price them for households earning 30 percent of the AMI or less.

An open records request to the Department of City Planning showed that, as of late last year, 29 developments built within those zones yielded 742 affordable units. Nearly 70 percent of those units are for people making at or below 80 percent of the AMI. The rest are for people making at or below 60 percent of the AMI.

Here are some European-style social housing projects underway in Atlanta:

  1. In Midtown, the old fire station on 10th Street near Juniper will be torn down and rebuilt with apartments above it—similar to projects undertaken in cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

  2. Several sites in Thomasville Heights, formerly home to the dilapidated Forest Cove apartments, have been rezoned and will become mixed-income apartments.

  3. Gun Club Park, an old skeet-shooting range near Westside Park, will become mixed-income housing that will conserve the surrounding forest and provide park space.

What are some limitations of inclusionary zoning?

According to the Urban Institute, a think tank for urban policy, IZ may be “best suited to providing units affordable to moderate-income households,” like those making 80 to 120 percent of the AMI, as opposed to those making less.

Units for families making at or below 50 percent of the AMI would provide the deeper affordability this city sorely needs, but that’s unlikely to happen. William McFarland, member of the BeltLine Affordable Housing Advisory Board and vice chair of the City of Atlanta’s Housing Commission, believes the City simply lacks the political will to force developers to set aside units for lower-income people. That’s partially because policymakers fear that requiring deeper affordability (such as units set aside for folks making 30 percent of AMI) may make developers hesitant to take on projects in those zones.

Another problem is that IZ comes with an expiration date: The ordinance for the BeltLine says these units just have to stay affordable for 20 years, after which the developer can convert them back to regular units. “How many of those units are going to be affordable,” McFarland asked, after the required amount of time has passed? “Very few.”

So what long-term solutions are we implementing?

The Atlanta Urban Development Corporation is a new tool in Atlanta’s housing kit that takes public land and transforms it into apartments. By renting out most of the units at market rate, the AUDC aims to make enough revenue to subsidize the rest. Its goal is to keep a fifth of units affordable for people making 50 percent of the AMI. The AUDC will also provide a longer time horizon: It plans to keep units affordable for at least half a century.

The mayor’s senior housing adviser, Josh Humphries, and others arrived at the idea after observing what European cities like Amsterdam are doing. Such cities have government agencies that work with private firms to build affordable housing on public land; however, rather than rely on public money, they generate enough revenue through market-rate units to stay afloat. The model is known as social housing.

There's some disagreement over how many units per development should be affordable—and how affordable they should be. McFarland wants to see half of the units set aside, though Humphries says something closer to a third makes more sense—citing the robust proportion of market-rate units needed to make the whole development sustainable.

What can we do in the meantime?

Atlanta needs more “missing middle” housing—basically small, multifamily buildings like triplexes and quadruplexes. One way to get more is, well, to allow it in the first place. Right now, it’s mainly allowed in districts marked for much greater density, where developers figure they may as well just build higher. The City of Atlanta happens to be updating its comprehensive development plan, known as Plan A, right now. This is the City’s chance to freshen up its outdated zoning rules, make room for missing middle housing, and all in all make building codes more accessible and flexible. As part of its plan, the City could also rezone certain areas to allow for things like accessory dwelling units (aka in-law suites, self-contained structures on more traditional single-family residential lots). That could make way for more housing and denser neighborhoods.

All these tools together could help alleviate Atlanta’s housing crisis, McFarland says: “That’s when you get a housing delivery system that can produce really affordable units.”

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