Affordable housing proposal gets cool reception from commissioners

Despite pressure from community members to address Athens’ lack of affordable housing, ACC Commissioners may end up rejecting a proposal from Mayor Kelly Girtz’s Inclusionary Housing Working Group next month.

Commissioners debated at their meeting on Tuesday whether they should allow homeowners to build small cottages, garage apartments or other dwellings on their property, which in government-speak are called “accessory dwelling units.” Currently, the local government prohibits this kind of housing in most zones, which is an example of exclusionary zoning.

At the meeting, several commissioners spoke up in opposition to a rapid approval of accessory dwelling units. This means the idea is not likely to pass when it comes for a vote in December, but supporters did not back down and continued to push for approval next month.

There’s a lot going on here, and I feel some background might be helpful. But you can skip the next section if you want to focus only on the local politics.

The Big Picture: Why does inclusionary zoning matter?

It’s no secret that wealthy, white neighborhoods have fought for decades, even centuries, to keep Black residents and others from moving in. Back in the days of overt discrimination, racial segregation was enforced by law.

That began to change with the 1917 Supreme Court decision Buchanan v. Warley which forbade explicit racial segregation in municipal zoning policy. As a result, white racists in control of these cities would increasingly adopt exclusionary zoning policies throughout the 20th century. These zoning rules did not rely on explicit racial segregation but nonetheless served to keep Black residents out of white neighborhoods.

Exclusionary zoning includes things like single-family zoning, minimum square footage requirements for new construction as well as prohibitions on duplexes, quadplexes and accessory dwelling units. Athens-Clarke County is currently enforcing all of these restrictions within its jurisdiction. This may help to maintain the perceived integrity of some Athens neighborhoods, but it also limits the supply of housing here and increases its cost.

Despite the racist roots of these policies, it should be noted that single-family homeowners in Athens today are probably most keen to keep out UGA students as much as any other demographic.

Supporters of inclusionary zoning in Athens see it as a way to overcome the exclusionary policies of the past, but also as a way to encourage the spread of affordable housing and walkable development throughout the city. Duplexes and quadplexes are cheaper to build per unit than most single-family homes, as are accessory dwelling units (due to their small size).

What is being proposed, right now?

A garage apartment
If this garage apartment has a bedroom and a 220V plug, it would be illegal to build in Athens. [Photo by radcliffe dacanay (CC BY 2.0)]

Former ACC Commissioner and Chair of the Inclusionary Housing working group Alice Kinman attended this week’s meeting to explain the group’s draft ordinance to the ACC Commission.

Their proposal is to allow one detached accessory dwelling unit per lot as long as the accessory unit has fewer bedrooms than the primary residence and takes up a maximum of 800 square feet. These accessory dwellings would be allowed to have one off-street parking space. 

That’s more or less the entire change being proposed. The ACC Planning Commission has unanimously voted to approve it. 

Kinman calls this proposal “low-hanging fruit” which she feels is a “good way to bring very gentle density into our neighborhoods.” Despite the benefits of allowing more housing in Athens, she did acknowledge that issues of noise, traffic and parking may always arise when increasing density. 

How commissioners responded

Commissioner Allison Wright
Commissioner Allison Wright

Commissioner Allison Wright described the ordinance as “big and encompassing.” She expressed hesitancy to approve it next month, saying it needed “a couple sessions on our cycle to get the community at large to realize what is being proposed.”

Wright wants the commission to regulate short term rentals first before allowing accessory dwelling units. She will almost certainly vote against the accessory dwelling unit proposal next month.

Likewise, Commissioner Patrick Davenport worried that accessory dwelling units would encourage the spread of AirBnBs and cause traffic issues. He also said his constituents did not support the idea. 

“I’ve heard nothing good about ADUs [accessory dwelling units] from any constituent in District 1,” Davenport said. “Those are my bosses, and right now my bosses are telling me not to approve this.” 

Commissioner Mike Hamby agreed with Davenport and Wright, saying that more discussion is needed before he’d vote to allow this type of housing in Athens.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton, who typically votes with Hamby and Wright, was not present for the discussion, nor was Commissioner Tim Denson, who serves as the commission’s representative on the Inclusionary Housing working group. Commissioner Carol Myers was acting as mayor in Girtz’s absence, so she did not share her opinion on the ordinance during this meeting.

No ordinance can be approved without at least six commissioners voting in favor, so the fact at least three (and probably four) commissioners are opposed to the idea is a major roadblock for supporters like Commissioners Jesse Houle and Russell Edwards. Importantly, the ACC Commission has only nine members after the resignation of Mariah Parker.

Commissioner Russell Edwards
Commissioner Russell Edwards

Nonetheless, Edwards firmly rebutted Davenport’s point about AirBnBs, arguing that the ordinance would actually allow for longer-term rental of some existing properties that can only be used now as short-term rentals.

“Right now, we’re allowing people to build accessory dwelling units, you just can’t have a 220V plug in there,” Edwards said. “Folks are already doing it. For an AirBnB, all you need is a hot plate [and not a stove, which would require a 220V plug].”

Houle echoed Edwards, saying that the proposed change was “minor” and that it would allow currently existing units to “become structures people can live in and maintain an address at, instead of an AirBnB. This is one of the easiest things we can do to make a small dent in a big problem.”

A potential compromise on the way?

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

Commissioner Melissa Link suggested a possible compromise proposal which might allow the accessory dwelling unit ordinance to move forward next month. Link’s idea is to limit accessory dwelling units to one bedroom only, on top of the existing limit of 800 square feet. Link feels that this might make accessory dwelling units less attractive to investors and limit their use as AirBnBs or student housing.

“In-town, tightly-packed neighborhoods… are being desperately, desperately impacted by student housing,” Link said. “As this is written now, it could very much incentivize your typical student housing investor flippers to start buying up more properties and putting more of these in backyards.”

Link’s idea is a potential path forward, but it’s unclear if it will receive any support from her colleagues. Commissioners who don’t want accessory dwelling units at all may not be swayed to support them even with this change. On the other hand, people who support the ordinance because it will bring more housing to Athens, student or otherwise, probably don’t want to see a bedroom limitation attached to it.

Link did not indicate if she will support the original proposal if her compromise plan fails.

Next Steps

The ordinance on accessory dwelling units will come before the commission for a vote on December 6. As it stands now, Commissioners Denson, Houle and Edwards have all expressed support for the motion. If Myers and Link both vote in favor, the ordinance would need one more vote from Davenport, Wright, Thornton or Hamby before it could be approved.

Given what they said at this past meeting, that’s probably not going to happen unless commissioners hear a lot of public support for this type of housing.

If you would like to contact your commissioner on this topic, you can find their emails here.

UPDATE (12/8/22): The commission rejected ADU’s in a series of 5-4 votes.

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