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Decatur Affordable Housing task force presents initial recommendations

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Decatur Affordable Housing task force presents initial recommendations

FILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: Bill Choate, of Decatur, works on S. McDonough Street for the Martin Luther King Jr. Service project in Decatur, Ga. on Sunday, January 15, 2017. The project is intended to help seniors in Decatur stay in their homes. File photo.


By Cathi Harris, contributor 

The Decatur Affordable Housing Task Force has spent the last six months looking at housing in the city to make recommendations about actions the city could take to improve access to shelter for people with incomes less than 120 percent of the area median income (AMI) of $79,700.

The committee presented a draft of its findings to the Decatur City Commission at a work session just before the Commission’s regular meeting on Monday, Dec. 16.

Here are some of the task force’s specific recommendations:

– Voluntary tax abatement for owners of existing affordable rental housing who agree to keep the units affordable for five years.

A key focus of the task force was how to preserve existing affordable housing in the dity of Decatur, and help keep residents from being displaced, said Tom Atkinson, who served on the task force’s committee on preservation of existing affordable housing.
An inventory of available affordable rental housing found about 900 units that now exist — about 600 in multifamily buildings, and 300 individually owned townhomes or condos that are on the rental market.

“A lot of this is what we are seeing torn down and turned into million dollar townhomes,” Atkinson said. “We want a chance to preserve those, keep them affordable and maybe renovate those into long-term affordability.”

The program could be completely voluntary, and give landlords a five-year abatement of a portion of their property taxes on the rental properties in return for keeping rents within affordable ranges. Atkinson estimated that the cost to the city in its revenue lost to the abatements would be around $1 million if all 900 units were included, though the committee is in the process of doing an in-depth analysis.

– Make it harder to demolish older multifamily units in RS-17 districts.

Most of the older multifamily housing units are in RS-17 districts, which are already zoned for higher density. The committee recommends altering the Unified Development Ordinance to require a conditional use permit (CUP) for any developer who wants to buy and redevelop a multifamily building in an RS-17 zoning district. The CUP would require the additional level of review from the Planning Commission and City Commission before an older building was torn down, to evaluate the economic impact and see whether it could be preserved.

– Adjust income limits for existing homestead exemptions.

Decatur has several homestead exemptions from property taxes available to help senior citizens stay in their homes, Atkinson said. But the income limits are outdated. One exemption kicks in only when residents have incomes below $10,000 a year. Others are at $25,000 or $50,000. The committee felt that the numbers were too low for many seniors who needed help to qualify for them.

“Especially if the [current] overall exemption for seniors over 65 for the school taxes sunsets, we recommend looking at the income limits and revising them upward,” Atkinson said.

– Expand help home maintenance help for seniors.

The city should consider expanding the annual Martin Luther King Day service project to help seniors with home weatherization and maintenance to happen more frequently, said Paula Collins, who also served on the same task force committee on preservation. Improved weatherization of older houses may help seniors on limited incomes have lower utility bills, which may help them not be as cost-burdened. Another option, proposed by Commissioner Kelly Walsh, might be a waiver of the fees for garbage collection. That, together with lower utility bills, might be enough to keep a resident from being cost burdened by the tax bill.

– Anti-displacement fund to help those on limited incomes.

The fund would provide money to seniors to help pay property tax bills, Collins said.

“Obviously, if there is a way to lower the amount that they are required to pay [with an improved homestead exemption] then that is a better way. But, even if that is in place, we recognize that there may still be a gap and that there are always going to be some people who need help.”

– Adopt an inclusionary zoning policy.

The task force recommends the city adopt an inclusionary zoning policy that requires developers of multifamily housing to reserve a portion of the units as affordable housing. Currently, the city offers a density bonus in the form of a conditional use permit that allows builders to construct a higher number of units than the zoning would support in return for reserving 10 percent of the units as affordable. An inclusionary zoning ordinance would not be voluntary, but require developers to include affordable housing in their plans.

“This is done in a number of places, including along the Beltline [in Atlanta] and it is in municipalities in many other cities in the metro area,” said Mike Travis, who served on the task force committee on zoning and policy. “A trigger for this could be developments that are 10 units or larger, so we would not be going after small buildings. There could be different levels of percent density. It is something that the staff could research and review.”

– Allowing duplexes and triplexes in residential R-zoned districts.

In the mid-1980s, the city zoning laws were changed to prohibit the construction of duplexes and triplexes in areas with single-family housing. As a result, streets with a mix of single-family and small multifamily only exist where older duplexes, built in the 1950s and ‘60s or earlier, were built. Changing the law back is an easy way to allow increased density without substantially altering the character of an existing neighborhood, said Travis. With the land being so expensive, it would also allow the developer to build something less expensive but that would still be profitable.

“Basically, by doing a triplex or allowing those types of uses, you reduce the cost for the development. So,  if I’m able to go buy a $350,000 lot, and I can then develop it in three for-sale units, the odds are those units are going to cost less than they would if I was to go build a $900,000 house, but the economics are still somewhat similar to the development entity.”

– Consider impact fees and tax-increment financing (TIF) as sources of revenue for new affordable housing.

Other municipalities in the region have made use of developer impact fees, as well as TIFs as sources of revenue to support housing development, said Blair Holden, a member of the task force’s revenue committee, which was charged with recommending ways that the city could find the money to support affordable housing development.

– Strategic partnerships.

The city could consider partnering with other organizations with experience in managing the development of affordable housing, such as the Decatur Housing Authority, said Doug Faust, also a task force member and the DHA’s executive director. The housing authority has a lot of experience with financing, constructing and managing affordable housing. In addition, as a public entity, it can do things like issue bonds and is not subject to the same constraints that the city might have, Faust said. DHA could set up an arrangement like an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) to work with the city.

The task force is refining all of their recommendations for a final report that is expected to be completed at the end of January and considered again by the City Commission in February of 2020.

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