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John Ruch Posted by on December 14, 2017.

Sandy Springs seeks affordable ‘workforce,’ police housing in apartment deal

A new luxury apartment building may provide 10 affordable units to middle-income households and public safety officers under an unusual deal being sought by Sandy Springs officials.

Known as The Cliftwood, the new apartment complex is located at 185 Cliftwood Drive, behind the related new Plaza at City Springs shopping center on Roswell Road. Marketing itself under the slogan, “Enjoy the life of luxury,” its advertised monthly rents range from $1,300 for a studio to $2,990 for a three-bedroom.

The Cliftwood apartment complex as it appears in a marketing photo on its website at thecliftwood.com.

During development talks last year, the city successfully sought to have an alley between the apartments and the shopping center turned into a new public street called Cliftwood Way. According to city staff memos, the city also required a grade change in the new street that exposed a previously underground section of the building. That allowed the possibility of building three more units, apparently because of the available window space.

The complex already had the maximum 248 units allowed in the earlier zone code under which it was approved. But the city allowed the three extra apartments to be built as “permanent model” units – apparently to show prospective tenants a sample unit — with no water hook-ups and where occupancy would not be legal.

A new zoning code approved this fall has no specific density limits. According to the staff memos, the city approached the owners – listed as Sandy Springs-based ECI Group and the Development Authority of Fulton County – with an offer to legalize the three extra units for occupancy in exchange for making 10 units anywhere in the building affordable for “workforce” or public safety housing.

Jack Misiura, ECI Group’s vice president for development, declined to comment prior to a final city decision on the deal.

Al Nash, executive director of the Development Authority, said his organization holds the title on the property in exchange for providing incentives to the developer to aid infrastructure improvement costs. Nash said the Development Authority has not been involved in any of the affordable unit discussions, but would support an agreement the developer and city reach.

“If the city said they wanted it and the [developer] said they wanted it, we’d say, ‘Get to it,'” Nash said. “The affordability … discussion is a very big discussion, but it is difficult to do. It sounds like they reached a compromise and we think that’s great.”

The proposed affordability deal would last for 10 years and dedicate three units to police officers or firefighters and seven to middle-income-qualified households.

For the public safety officer units, the maximum rent and required fees would be a maximum of $500 a month, with 5 percent annual increases starting Jan. 1, 2019.

The general “workforce” units would be made available to households earning 80 to 120 percent of the area median income, with rent and fees charged at a rate no more than 30 percent of the household’s pre-tax income.

There are various ways to calculate AMI and the agreement does not specify the current amount. But the agreement says it will be based on the U.S. Census’s Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta statistical area, which does not appear to have current available statistics. On other affordability policy topics, city officials have used the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell area, whose AMI is reported by the Census at around $60,000 a year.

The agreement does not make clear how the city would monitor the owners’ adherence to the deal. However, it specifies that if the deal was broken, the city could prohibit further leasing at the apartments and file a lawsuit.

Legalizing the new units and securing the agreement requires a rezoning. According to the staff memos, city officials waived the two community meetings that normally are required for a rezoning. The first public hearing about the deal will be before the city Planning Commission on Dec. 21. The deciding vote would be made by the City Council, likely at the Jan. 16 meeting.

According to financial disclosures required as part of the proposal, Seth Greenberg, an attorney for ECI Group, contributed $1,000 to Mayor Rusty Paul’s campaign fund in June.

City leaders have struggled with policies to cope with skyrocketing rents and home prices. The Cliftwood deal is similar to previous ad hoc efforts to temporarily gain middle-income affordability in such places as a Pill Hill apartment complex and for police officers in Hammond Drive houses land-banked for a possible road-widening.

As part of the new zoning code, the city went through several drafts of possible affordable housing policies, finally discarding a mandatory section and sticking with some incentives. Officials say they will form an affordable housing task force and develop a fuller policy later. Meanwhile, their official focus remains on middle-income housing, which some residents and advocates have criticized as insufficient while lower-income people are already being priced out of the city.

Updated: This story has been updated with comment from Al Nash of the Development Authority of Fulton County.