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A house subdivided – Decatur re-allows duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes

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A house subdivided – Decatur re-allows duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes

FILE PHOTO: Hannah Olan outside her city of Decatur duplex. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the March 1 Decaturish e-edition. 

Decatur, GA – Hannah Olan moved to Decatur a few years ago to attend Columbia Theological Seminary. She moved into her duplex the same day her best friend moved out of the same duplex. 

“The only reason why I could even get a place in Decatur was because I already knew someone here and because it happened to be an affordable duplex inside the city limits,” Olan said. “The housing market even then, four years ago, was pretty tight.” 

Olan is a chaplain and had it not been for the duplex, she wouldn’t have been able to afford to live inside the city limits of Decatur. 

Now, thanks to a recent change in city policy, there will be more sudivided housing – like duplexes –  on the market in Decatur. Supporters say that the new policy will lead to more affordable housing options, while critics say developers will take advantage of the policy to maximize their profits, leaving people like Olan shut out of housing opportunities. 

Affordable housing has been scarce in the city for years.

When Olan was looking for places to live in the city at one point, she “didn’t think it was going to happen because there wasn’t anything.”

The apartments complexes were too expensive and would likely raise the rent in a year. She didn’t want to up herself in a situation where she’d be moving every year.  

She added that there’s pros and cons to duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes. Her duplex isn’t perfect, but it’s home, she said. 

“For me, if there wasn’t a duplex, there was no way this would have happened,” Olan said. 

A starting point 

On Feb. 6, the Decatur City Commission unanimously adopted zoning amendments that will re-allow duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in single-family zoning districts. The ordinance will go into effect on June 30.

There are some duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and small apartment buildings throughout the city, but the housing type was gradually disallowed in single-family neighborhoods, with duplexes, being the last housing type to be disallowed in 1988.

The housing types were disallowed in 1988 due to absentee ownership, former city planner Kristin Allin previously said.

The amendments will allow for the construction of or conversion to duplexes, which are two units, and walk-up flats, which are three to four units, in the city’s R-50, R-60, R-85, and RS-17 zoning districts by limited use. These types of housing will have to conform to the size limitations of single-family homes. The ability to build and maintain a single-family home will not change.

The amendment also requires one parking space per unit, and allows for up to 50% of the parking for duplexes and walk-up flats to be on-street parking, as long as there is enough street frontage and on-street parking is allowed.

As part of the ordinance, a four-unit walk-up flat may also have one accessory dwelling unit and will be subject to the mandatory inclusionary housing ordinance, according to a memo from Allin.

The city will limit the number of building permits for 18 months from June 30, 2023, to Dec. 31, 2024. The permits will be limited to three per Decatur lower elementary school zone to give the city time to implement the zoning changes “in a manner that best serves the community and minimizes any adverse impacts on city residents,” Allin wrote in the memo.

Allin, who spearheaded the effort to re-allow duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes, in January started a job as a senior planner with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Allin told Decaturish that the city commission’s decision to reallow these missing middle housing types puts the city at a starting point. 

“It really takes Decatur from ‘talking about’ housing diversity and affordability to ‘acting on tough decisions’ to further these goals,” Allin said. “I mention this as a starting point because the policies put in place over the past several years give us the tools, but now the city needs to work on funding sources and partnerships to help the Decatur Land Trust stand on its own and purchase housing.” 

She added that reallowing duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes will make it easier for the Decatur Land Trust and mission-driven developers to create affordable and accessible housing. 

“I think – what it means to me – is that Decatur has looked at this choice of reallowing missing middle housing types versus continuing on its current trajectory, and decided who it wants to be and will now lean into that vision,” Allin said. 

Pros and cons

Throughout the public hearings, residents raised concerns about blanket zoning changes, traffic, parking, and affordability, among other concerns.

Olan recently spoke about missing middle housing during a Decatur City Commission meeting. She wasn’t planning on getting involved until a flyer was taped to her mailbox with a link to a petition opposing the city’s efforts to reallow duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in single family zoning districts. 

“That was the point in which I was like, okay, now I’m pissed,” Olan said. “It really made me feel unwelcome. That was the first time since I moved that I felt like I wasn’t welcome here.” 

Olan acknowledged the opponents of the policy have legitimate concerns. 

“I think there’s going to be pros and cons. I’m not saying that the people talking about parking, and talking about issues like that, aren’t valid. I’m just saying they don’t matter as much as the people,” Olan said. “My hope is that as a city we always choose people and diversity over parking.” 

Bill Emanuel, who owns several properties, including duplexes, in Decatur, said the only real way to make duplexes affordable is to lower the taxes for landlords. 

“To me the solution is not going to be building duplexes and quads and things like that, because you’re going to build new construction and the price of new construction is going to drive the price of the rent up,” Emanuel said. 

The biggest issue is taxes, he added. 

“The taxes are the No. 1 hit on rental property,” Emanuel said. “My average tax on these homes come to roughly $600 a month. That’s not including insurance. That’s not including notes. When you add insurance, and you add a note, and you add that tax on there, there’s hardly any room for something to go wrong to make any money.” 

He added that there’s a misperception that investors own some of the properties and are making a lot of money off of them. 

“It’s not an easy job. Everybody thinks it’s an easy job. They think all you’re doing is collecting rent, but you have to fix things. You have to do the yards and things like that,” Emanuel said. “I strive to try to give people a good value for their dollar, but it’s hard.” 

‘A good compromise’

At the Jan. 17 city commission meeting, Commissioner Lesa Mayer said that duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes would be the same size as a single family home, with potentially the same number of occupants and cars. At the Feb. 6 meeting, she said that what the city commission was doing was important. 

“While this ordinance is not what I would have wanted, I would’ve wanted something a little bit stronger, I think that it represents a good compromise,” Mayer said. “I think that it takes into account a lot of the concerns that were expressed in the public hearings and gets us to a place that’s very reasonable.”

The decision is a launching point, Mayor Pro Tony Powers said. 

“We can start figuring out what the data is and what we need to do. We can’t fix it all in 18 months or 24 months, but we can start,” Powers said. “This is a defining moment in how our city goes forward.” 

The amendments would allow for more people, like Olan, to live in Decatur and allow for varying incomes, she added. 

“It’s going to be expensive because it’s Decatur. That’s okay,” Olan said. “ It’s still less expensive than the $1 million home around the corner. That’s what I’m looking for. I want some other people like me.”

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