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Looking for the ‘Missing Middle’ –Decatur faces hard choices on affordable housing

Business Decatur

Looking for the ‘Missing Middle’ –Decatur faces hard choices on affordable housing

The city of Decatur hosted a Housing Summit on Nov. 10. Left: Housing data presented by the City of Decatur. Center: Bill Bolling, founder of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum, moderates summit. Right: Participants examine strategies for increasing affordable housing in the city. Photos by Cathi Harris


This story has been updated. 

By Cathi Harris, contributor 

Decatur residents will need to reckon with their concerns about school overcrowding, traffic and property values if they want to preserve what remains of the city’s affordable housing.

That was the opinion of several experts who spoke during a Decatur Housing Summit over the weekend.

“We can’t use the excuse of, ‘It’s going to overload our schools’ [to oppose multifamily housing],” explained Richelle Patton, Winnona Park resident and principal with the Tapestry Development Group, a nonprofit affordable housing developer in the Atlanta metro area. “Yes, it may mean making hard decisions about adding trailers. I am a mom and I hear that. But if you want this to be an open and welcoming place – a place where not everyone looks like us or makes as much money – we have to support more development like this.”

Patton’s presentation was part of the Housing Summit held Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Manuel J. Maloof Auditorium in downtown Decatur. The summit drew more than 100 city residents as well as the city commissioners, city staff and experts in zoning, urban planning and housing development to examine the issue of affordable housing in the City of Decatur.

Lack of affordable housing is a primary concern across the country and Decatur is no exception, Mayor Patti Garrett said.

As in most of the rest of the country, housing costs in the Atlanta metropolitan area have outpaced both inflation and wage increases. Since 2010, rental rates have risen 48 percent, while wages have only gone up by 10 percent. According to a report from the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), 52 percent of Atlanta metro residents cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Garrett is also a member of the ARC’s Community Resources Board and, as such, is involved in frequent discussions with other area leaders and their counterparts nationwide about sustainable planning and development. For the past two years, a top concern on everyone’s agenda has been the growing lack of affordable housing.

As Atlanta and other cities develop their own strategies for addressing the crisis, Garrett said the city hosted the summit because Decatur needs to develop solutions that address the particular factors complicating its housing market – its small size, residential-heavy tax base, and a popular and rapidly growing independent school system.

“We have experienced a tremendous amount of growth in just our 4.3 square miles,” Garrett said. “The changes and challenges are different in Decatur.”

The city wanted to bring together “thoughtful participants” to examine what affordable housing should look like in Decatur and how it can be accomplished. She cautioned that the summit was the beginning of a process and there would not be a definite strategic plan achieved in one nine-hour day.

Defining ‘affordable’ in Decatur

The summit began with a discussion about what the term “affordable” means for the Atlanta area and for Decatur, specifically.

For the purposes of evaluating the available housing stock in Decatur, city staff used a metric of housing that is affordable to residents making 80 percent of AMI or lower ($59,840) as the threshold to define lower income housing.

According to city data, 38 percent of Decatur’s total housing inventory meets the definition of affordable, mostly consisting of older duplexes and triplexes throughout residential neighborhoods, older midcentury apartment complexes, subsidized senior living towers, and the Decatur Housing Authority properties.

Additional information provided by the city indicates that:

  • Rental units at newly constructed apartment buildings in Decatur are generally available to people with incomes at or above the AMI. Decatur Housing Authority complexes and older multifamily buildings provide most of the rental housing available to households with lower incomes. And single-family home rentals are “essentially non-existent” to those with incomes below the AMI.
  • Purchase opportunities at or below the median income are extremely rare in Decatur and only exist with multifamily products (condos, townhomes, etc.) Single-family detached home purchase opportunities “emerge as incomes approach 200 percent of median income.” Low-income ownership opportunities (affordable to households with incomes at 80 percent of median income or lower) are almost non-existent.

But statistics focusing on housing available to those making around the AMI or below can obscure an even more concerning trend–the lack of housing available for the growing number of people who make well below the average, warned Ann Carpenter, senior community and economic development adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Carpenter’s focus at the bank is housing and neighborhood revitalization.

“Residents in the lowest income quartile are increasingly cost-burdened,” Carpenter said, which means more than 30 percent of their income goes toward housing. “In many cases, they are paying more than 50 percent of their income in housing costs.”

Historically, Decatur’s share of cost-burdened households has been low compared to the surrounding region, but its share is growing.

Data collected by the bank in partnership with the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida indicates that rental rates are also rising faster in Decatur than metro Atlanta as a whole.

Nationally, only 1 in 4 households who qualify for housing assistance receive it, and Decatur has an estimated deficit of 865 units that would be affordable for households who are defined as very low income or making below 50 percent of the AMI ($37,400). For the Atlanta metro region, the AMI is $74,800 per year.

Many attendees also felt that focusing on the 80 percent of AMI benchmark still left out many people the city would want to be able to live here or remain here, including teachers, police officers, firefighters and city service workers, as well as workers in the service industry Decatur relies on.

During table sessions, many supported strategies aimed specifically at developing housing for people at 50 percent or lower AMI, who are considered “cost-burdened” because they would have to spend more than 30 percent of their income for an apartment almost anywhere in the metro area. Other tables also cited a need for supportive housing available for those with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Preserving what is already there

Much of Decatur’s “naturally occurring affordable housing” – known as NOAH among housing advocates – is at risk for redevelopment into higher cost apartments and townhomes, Tapestry’s Richelle Patton told attendees.

NOAH are the privately owned older apartment buildings, duplexes, and triplexes that are not subject to Decatur Housing Authority regulations or dedicated senior living housing.

For-profit developers can afford to quickly purchase these older properties at market value or above and redevelop them. The high costs for land and for labor in the intown Atlanta area mean that it is only profitable for them to build high-end housing in those spaces.

Nonprofits like Patton’s are able to access federal tax credit incentive programs and grant programs to support the purchase and rehabilitation of older properties or development of private affordable housing, she explained. Those programs come with requirements that require the property to be developed remain rent-restricted for periods of up to 15 to 30 years. But doing so requires much longer time frames for application and approval and comes with many more documentation requirements.

Strategies to protect existing NOAH properties or encourage affordable redevelopment include:

  • The city providing low-interest loans and tax incentives to encourage owners of existing older apartments to do be able to adequately maintain their properties without selling;
  • Land banking of distressed or older properties – in which the city would purchase the property and hold for affordable housing development;
  • Nominal ground leases on city owned land – city allows affordable housing development on property under a long-term lease but retains ownership of the land;
  • Requiring developers of new complexes to set aside a percentage of new units as affordable housing in return for allowing a higher density of units (the city already does this, but the incentives could be expanded);
  • Waivers or reduction in fees for permits, impact fees and/or tap fees;
  • Property tax abatements on affordable housing developments.

Patton said there are also many misconceptions people have about affordable housing developments, she added. “Affordable housing is not cheap housing.”

Funding program requirements often stipulate that affordable housing developers cannot refinance with new equity for at least 15 years and that they use high-quality building components and resident amenities with the complexes they fund.

“The complexes we build have to be high quality, durable and sustainable for a long period of time,” she explained. Newer affordable housing developments are often not distinguishable from market-rate complexes, she said.

Zoning for sustainable growth

Outdated zoning policies designed for suburbs are contributing to higher land costs and, as a result, rapidly rising housing prices in urban areas, as well as environmentally unsustainable development, said Eric Kronberg, an architect and principal at Kronberg Wall Architects in Atlanta.

Requirements for minimum square footage, low lot coverage, on-site parking, and even maintenance of stormwater runoff have the effect of discouraging higher density development, which is a more efficient and cost-effective land use.

“We’ve made it basically illegal to have anything but single-family housing,” he says.

Kronberg highlighted the Decatur city government’s case study of Drexel Avenue, presented at the summit, as a good example of the unintended consequences of exclusionary zoning.

Historically in Decatur, the city noted, neighborhoods included a range of different types of housing, from single-family homes, to small multi-family apartment buildings, to homes renovated into duplexes and triplexes, to garage and basement “granny flats.” These were all constructed or renovated to the same scale, so that the effect of walking down Drexel still maintains the feel of a quiet residential neighborhood.

Due to economic changes in the 1980s, with an increase in distressed properties owned by absentee landlords, the city stopped allowing construction of these types of housing.

Such small-scale units are now known as the “missing middle” – types of housing between large, single-family detached homes and large multi-family apartment complexes. Missing middle units offer the potential to house older residents, younger adults, single-parent families and many others not able to afford larger housing, within the fabric of the neighborhood.

The reason Decatur sees mostly large, single-family detached houses is because that is what its zoning allows. On larger lots, you will also see attached townhomes. But, Kronberg said, townhomes are not really the best use of the land. They provide the best profit margin for the developer, he said.

Alternatives like cottage court developments offer opportunities to preserve more of the tree canopy and offer more of a range of housing types of different sizes – some small detached cottages, some duplexes, or a larger co-housing space with some shared greenspace and amenities.

“I would argue that where land is scarce, you have more of a moral obligation to make better use of it,” he says. “This particularly applies to land that is close to public transit like MARTA heavy rail, so you would reduce car usage.”

Decatur has been pursuing a Cottage Court pilot project that seeks to construct six affordable homes at 230 Commerce Drive. That project has stalled, however, because of issues raised by the Georgia Department of Transportation according to City Planner Angela Threadgill.

“Commerce Drive is a state road and any changes within right of way and a new curb cut has to have their approval,” she said. “GDOT has reviewed the plans and has expressed concerns about it.”

There are other reasons beyond issues of equity and preservation of diversity for residents to care about sprawl, many speakers at the summit said.

Housing costs underlie many of the main concerns of any community, from school quality, to traffic to environmental sustainability, said Sarah Kirsch, executive director of the Urban Land Institute-Atlanta.

“Unique to Atlanta is the issue of transportation,” said Kirsch. “Sprawl is a huge contributor to this issue. We had the old approach [to housing] of ‘drive ‘til you qualify’ so people just kept driving farther out to find something they could afford.”

In many cases, people who live far outside the downtown core and commute in for work have found that they are spending just as much of their money on transportation as the spend on housing.

Future steps

In round-table discussions, residents voiced support for many proposed strategies, like adoption of inclusionary zoning, establishment of a land trust or fund to preserve land for affordable housing and use of special tax allocation districts to fund affordable development.

Some proposed other alternatives like a local credit union or mutual aid society to provide loans for lower income residents or for affordable development, and the creation of an affordable housing task force or board to work with developers and make recommendations to the city.

For now, Mayor Garrett said she and the staff would take the input provided at the summit and work on recommendations for a future meeting.

She was very encouraged by the number of people who turned out on a Saturday and by the enthusiasm residents showed for tackling such a difficult issue.

For those who are interested in the issue, but unable to attend, a video of the presentations and all supplemental materials will be posted on the city’s community planning blog, DecaturNext.

Editor and publisher Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this story. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that Decatur has a definite deficit of 865 housing units that are affordable for very low-income households. That number is a ballpark figure and should have been reported as an estimate. We have updated the story to reflect this.