Dear Decaturish – East Lake MARTA redevelopment could help address affordable housing needs
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The topic of affordable housing isn’t new to Decatur. It’s been in our strategic plans, developed by hundreds of engaged citizens of our city, for nearly two decades. The trouble is, we’ve not made a lot of progress toward addressing this pressing issue and housing prices continue to climb. We’re losing our diversity (socio-economic, age, race) and that’s troubling to many of us.
On top of that, many of the people who work hard to make Decatur a great place – our teachers, firefighters, police officers, city employees – can’t afford to live where they work. Seniors who want to age in place in the community they love and our young people who grow up here should be able to make a home here, too.
There are possible solutions, but we must overcome some obstacles.
One such obstacle is the price of land. As a city, we’re land locked and mostly built out. With the cost of commercial land above $1,000,000 an acre (roughly twice that in downtown), any surface parking lot is a prime space, whether downtown, adjacent to a MARTA station, or in the areas surrounding our many neighborhoods.
This is a huge factor in the East Lake TOD (Transit Oriented Development). Removing the cost of the underlying land moves us closer to being able to build affordable rental units mixed in with market rate units. MARTA’s requirement of a minimum of 20 percent affordable units (set aside for households making less than or equal to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI)) is encouraging.
The same is true for any housing developed at the former United Methodist Children’s Home (UMCH) property. If the cost of land is removed from the equation, the math works out to add in affordable options in with market rate units, and the ability to keep them affordable into the future.
Another obstacle is the price of ownership. Our housing prices continue to climb. The average single-family dwelling sales price in 2017 was just above $650K, up over 60 percent since 2012. Condominiums and townhomes of all sizes are equally out of reach, selling for an average of $150,000 per bedroom. One-bedroom condos in our city sold for an average of $209K in 2017.
Ownership of a single-family detached home, condo or townhome is simply out of reach for most households earning less than 120 percent AMI – among them, many of our teachers, firefighters, police officers and city employees. Again, the very same people who work here, day after day, to make Decatur such an awesome place for all of us cannot afford to be our neighbors.
Most rentals, especially those near a MARTA station, are out of reach of those same people. Without purposefully including affordable rental units in all new multi-family developments, we’re not going to effectively address this shortfall.
The myth that dense development will further flood our overwhelmed school system is just that – a myth. According to City Schools of Decatur, only 3 percent of our student body live within the hundreds of apartments developed since 2016. The City Schools of Decatur and the City of Decatur Commissioners have developed a tool that aids in estimating school impact for new developments. The fact-driven assumption is 0.5 school age children per unit with 2 or more bedrooms. Keep in mind that dense apartment developments are highly net positive to the school system revenue. They pay far more than their share in the cost of educating our youth and help in shifting the overall tax burden off homeowners.
As for the concern about increased automobile traffic in the area, we must keep in mind that it will take years before any ground is broken. MARTA’s own estimate is four or more years for selecting a developer and full implementation of the plans. In the meantime, as we actively work to make it safer for different modes of transportation other than cars along the routes to the station, more and more people will be arriving via bicycle, scooters, power wheelchairs and on foot. As we witnessed with the city’s recent Transportation Plan update – we can’t predict all the transportation improvements we’ll see in the next five-plus years, but some of them will indeed reduce the “one person in a car” traffic patterns we see so often today.
Perhaps the largest obstacle to the East Lake TOD is fear of change. Change can be unsettling, especially since no one can fully foresee the future. It was with substantial trepidation, back in the early 1970’s, that communities planned for the development of the first leg of the MARTA heavy rail system. Decatur officials and citizens, joined by consultants and folks from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), tried to foresee what impact that would have. Even today, we’re nowhere near their assumptions for the year 1995 of the number and size of buildings within a 600-foot perimeter of the old courthouse or the number of people flocking to the “super block” they envisioned.
From what we’ve seen, the suggested plans for the East Lake MARTA development does an outstanding job of being respectful of the surrounding single-family neighborhoods and adjacent commercial spaces. The transitions from low to higher rooflines helps ease the shift from single story homes to taller buildings, with three-story heights facing the single-family homes, and increasing to a maximum of five-story heights abutting the existing MARTA station. The proposed development is nowhere near the density that could be built, and the stepdown/transition to the surrounding areas is clearly within the specifications of our Uniform Development Code. For those reasons and more, we support this plan.
The East Lake MARTA TOD affords us a chance to stem some of our loss of diversity, and maybe even add some back in. Who knows? If we can agree that people who work to make Decatur such a great place to live, work and play deserve at least the option of living in Decatur, then turning a large field of underutilized asphalt into a vibrant community asset is an opportunity we can’t miss.
– Coalition for a Diverse Decatur
Vienna Pae Cornell
Susan Ann Firestone
Rev. Tom Hagood
Daphne M. Hall
Warran L. Harbert
Anne F. Hughes
Carole Bruce Johnston
Robert L. Leonard
Ingra Briggs Myrick
Susan Ellis Purdom
Ann Boon Rhea
Nakiesha Melvin Sprull
Peter H. Ward