Change is a constant in Intown Atlanta neighborhoods and zoning regulations change in response to current concerns. On February 6, 2023, the Decatur City Commission voted to adopt changes to the zoning ordinance to allow duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes in single-family zoning districts. The changes will go into effect on June 30 and will be phased in over 18 months. During the “phase in” period, building permits to build multi-unit properties or convert a single-family house to a multifamily property will be limited to three permits per lower elementary school zone.
In the late 1980’s, the City of Decatur, like many Intown Atlanta neighborhoods, was looking for a way to promote single-family homeownership. The city passed an ordinance that eliminated any new multifamily units or conversions in residential neighborhoods. At the time, many potential homeowners were reluctant to purchase a house next to a multifamily unit that might be in poor condition or live next to a single-family home that could be demolished to build a multifamily property. The thinking then, and it is still true today, is that single-family homeowners provide stability in a community.
Forty plus years later, by any measure, Decatur has been successful in promoting single-family homeownership. With a well-run city government and an excellent public school system, demand for single-family homes in the city far exceeds the supply of properties. In the last decade, single-family housing prices have risen from an average of $300,000 to more than $800,000.
The City of Decatur is now part of the national housing affordability crisis. If you are a young person that grew up in Decatur, finished college and is now back working in the Atlanta area, chances are good that you will not be able to afford to buy a home in your hometown. If you teach in the City Schools of Decatur system, are a public safety or public works employee with the city, or work for a local nonprofit organization, you probably can’t afford to live where you work.
While the change to the single-family zoning ordinance will not entirely solve the affordability crisis in the city, it will make a dent in the problem. A person who might not qualify for an expensive home might be able to buy a duplex and live in one side and have the rental income from the other unit make the property affordable. If a single-family lot sells for $400,000, a home built on that lot would need to be sold for well over $1 million to make the numbers work. If you were able to build four units on that same $400,000 lot, the resulting properties would probably sell for $300,000 to $400,000 each, making the homes within reach of more middle-income buyers.
This change in the zoning ordinance will foster more racial, age, income and housing stock diversity in the city. It will add density that, by in large, does not exist in its residential neighborhoods. More infill housing will also add to the city’s tax base. Its impact on the school system and traffic are said to be manageable. Overall, the change is forward-thinking and is something that ought to be considered by other local governments in the Atlanta region.