The proposed Buford Highway Overlay included in the city’s rewrite of its zoning ordinance will require developers to set aside 10 percent of units in a residential project as “workforce housing” as one way to address gentrification along the international corridor. Density incentives for developers are also proposed to those building more affordable housing.
The mandates of the Overlay were first posted to the city’s website Aug. 16 for public review. The Planning Commission is expected to take up the entire proposed zoning ordinance rewrite Sept. 5 and the City Council is slated to discuss it for the first time together later in September with a final vote expected Sept. 26.
Known commonly as “inclusionary zoning,” the workforce housing mandate is intended to ensure housing for primarily middle-income, but also lower-income, households as all metro Atlanta cities grapple with skyrocketing real estate prices and rent.
Housing and immigrant experts say Brookhaven’s proposal for Buford Highway is not enough to help those already living in the many aging and affordable apartment complexes dotting Buford Highway. A retired Georgia Tech urban planning professor urged the city to find a way to preserve at least some of the existing affordable housing.
The draft of the Buford Highway Overlay states that whenever the city approves a special land use permit for rezoning on Buford Highway and the property is developed as a “residential housing project” then 10 percent of the units must be classified as workforce housing.
A residential housing project is defined as either a new housing development, rehabilitation of a current development or the conversion of rental apartments to condominiums.
The city is defining workforce housing in the new zoning rewrite as households earning no more than 80 percent of the area median household income (AMI) for the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area. That’s currently about $68,000.
But $68,000 is far out of touch with those currently living on Buford Highway, according to Sarah Brechin with the Cross Keys Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative. Rather than using the metro Atlanta numbers, the city should focus on census data for the area. In May, CKSNI stated that census data shows the AMI for Buford Highway is closer to $24,000.
She noted the city’s decision to recently walk away from an economic incentive proposal by Ardent Companies after disagreeing on what affordable housing is.
Ardent Companies was seeking $30 million in tax incentives from the city to build 30 affordable housing as part of a 300-unit residential development on Bramblewood Drive just off Buford Highway. Ardent defined affordable as an AMI of $68,000; the city used census track data and said the Buford Highway AMI is closer to $50,000.
“An AMI of $68,000 would essentially be out of reach for many living on Buford Highway, our city employees, or teachers serving local schools,” Mayor John Ernst said at the time.
Because the Ardent Companies proposal was part of an economic incentives negotiation using tax dollars, the city used the lower AMI. The proposed Buford Highway Overlay does allow the city to provide other incentives for workforce housing, including fee waivers, expedited permitting and “financial assistance.”
Financial assistance is defined as economic development incentives determined by the City Council on a case-by-case basis, according to city officials.
Using the term “workforce housing” is also problematic, Brechin said, because it leaves out the most vulnerable residents who are far below the income limits associated with the workforce.
“These are the neighbors who support the community and are employed through small businesses, government, are often older and depend on their Social Security Income to help pay the rent,” she said.
Larry Keating, a retired Georgia Tech urban planning professor and author of the influential policy book “Atlanta: Race, Class and Urban Expansion,” didn’t mince words and said Brookhaven’s proposal is nothing more than “state sponsored gentrification via regulatory changes.”
Keating explained that many Asian and Latin immigrants and others moved to Buford Highway rental housing in the 1980s through 2000s. They did so because many apartments were large, some as big as 900 square-feet for a two-bedroom apartment; rents are near the bottom of the metro rental price range; and the apartments are accessible via public and indigenous transportation.
“Plus, once communities began to establish themselves, they had folks who could help new arrivals acclimate,” he said.
Gentrification is most simply defined as upward class change in land use, Keating said.
“Incentives should be characterized as the subsidies they are; we shouldn’t change our vocabulary when referring to different economic classes,” he said.
He urged the city to find ways to save at least some of the current affordable apartments on Buford Highway.
“Not all housing is rehab-able, but many units are,” he said.
“The losses to gentrification are measured in destruction of social communities, elimination of individual’s connections to their communities, displacement without compensation and reductions in scarce low income housing,” he said.