Darin Givens: Fill in Our Missing Middle

If you use data mapping website Esri to produce a map of Atlanta’s population density, you’ll find something relatively shocking. Not a single zip code in the city qualifies as “urban” or “metropolis” by this tool’s measure. In fact, most of the City of Atlanta’s density qualifies as “suburban.” It’s a sprawling, pedestrian-hostile situation that stifles our ability to do many of the things that cities do best.

Put another way: ATL’s dispersion of people makes it harder for transit to thrive, more difficult to achieve equity goals (meaning: access to jobs, transit, and more), and it prevents many neighborhoods from having walkable amenities. We can’t have a great city without actually building a place designed like a city.

I’ve experienced this firsthand, both as a 17-year resident of Atlanta, but also as one of its biggest advocates, despite everything. I’ve gotten many messages over the years from newcomers to Atlanta who assumed that a major city like this would allow people to walk, bike, or take transit everywhere. They were surprised to find that our urban fabric isn’t truly urban.

We have to bring an end to what’s rightly been called Atlanta’s “war on density.” But how do we challenge something so onerous and systemic and longstanding as that?

One huge step in the right direction is called “missing middle” housing. The term was coined by urban designer Dan Parolek in 2010 and refers to buildings that have multiple homes in them, but that aren’t as large as the more common five- or six-story apartment complexes. These include duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes, small apartment buildings, and townhouses.

You’ve probably seen it in wonderful pockets around town. The blocks of Cabbagetown that mix small apartment buildings and duplexes among the detached houses, providing walkable access to the wonderful neighborhood stores on Carroll Street and elsewhere. The beautiful stretch of Auburn Avenue that both hosts the birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr. and that’s filled with lovely old duplexes that sit near single-family houses. Or Glenwood Avenue in Virginia Highland, where my family lived in an old condo when our son was born, which is lined with an assortment of small apartment buildings, duplexes, and bungalows.

Other than providing added residents in walkable distance to destinations, this type of housing sets the stage for added affordability through basement apartments, accessory dwelling units, and other formats that tend to be less costly to rent than a detached house or a unit in a towering glass skyscraper.

Why are these residential options so important? Affordable housing is critically scarce in metro Atlanta. One study found a 120,000-unit (!!!) deficit. Although it’s not a full solution in itself, since public investment is crucial for providing the deepest levels of affordability to the lowest income groups, missing middle growth is still a necessary component.

We had a chance to make a big change last year. Councilman Amir Farokhi, working with the city’s planning department, introduced good legislation that would’ve added missing middle density to our more suburban districts—places with zoning laws that forbid construction of small apartment buildings, or basement apartments, or duplexes.

The proposal would have allowed small apartment buildings, with only 8-12 units each, to be built within a half mile of MARTA rail stations in the city. It echoed the Atlanta City Design document from several years ago, which makes a clear call for inclusionary zoning (requiring a percentage of units in a new housing development to be affordable for low-to-middle income groups), and for eliminating barriers to missing middle housing.

Frustratingly, our local leaders pandered to the “not in my backyard” tendencies of many Atlantans by opposing this proposal after hearing their complaints. The legislation died in a City Council committee vote.

Why did NIMBYs oppose it? Many felt that these small apartments would “sacrifice” neighborhoods that currently only allow detached houses, the idea being that the lower-density character of their streets would be killed by the introduction of basement apartments. This is a needlessly pessimistic take. Instead of dying, these streets would be joining the ranks of the many wonderful places in Atlanta where detached homes and small duplexes and apartments have already worked together in harmony for many decades.

This kind of thinking is pervasive and contagious, unfortunately. It only takes a few people in a position of power to poison an entire neighborhood against smart, innovative density that’s walkable to MARTA. Building a city around a fear of density and a distaste for renters is a terrible thing to do—unfortunately, Atlanta is mired in a long tradition of exactly that.

It’s a problem that affects everyone, too. As Jerusalem Demsas wrote recently in The Atlantic, “When wealthy homeowners oppose new development in their neighborhoods—and when elected officials let them get their way—fewer homes are built overall, contributing to America’s undersupply crisis and raising prices for everyone.”

“Their opposition also pushes what housing does get built into a handful of places where dissent is weaker,” she continues. “Even that housing is generally insufficient, however, so when young, upwardly mobile people move into these neighborhoods, they occupy not only the new high-rise developments, but also the dwindling stock of affordable housing, leaving lower- and middle-income people with few options.”

One way to change this is by supporting forward-thinking leadership, and encouraging city council members and city planners who are willing to find creative ways to add commonsense housing all over Atlanta. Yes, tweaking our zoning is not an affordability solution in itself, as many detractors are quick to point out. But it’s an essential piece of the puzzle that will work with other tools to create more-affordable homes. And without this piece we’ll be unable to create the equitable, human-centered city we need.

Overly car-centric neighborhoods near some of our MARTA stations cause too many challenges. I want to see Atlanta leaders evangelize for change to our zoning, to actively explain to neighborhoods why missing middle housing is important, rather than simply sharing the content of a proposal and listening to the hot takes of frightened NIMBYs. Leaders must buy into the vision and support it.

And if loud voices from neighborhoods continue to complain (spoiler alert: they will), leaders should ignore them and do the right thing anyway. Providing access to a more urban and sustainable city for future ATLiens is more important than placating a few noisy citizens who are afraid of people with less money than them. In fact, a recent Zillow study shows that most residents of Metro Atlanta favor adding missing middle density to their neighborhoods. We must make it our job to get these voices heard.

One of the reasons I co-founded ThreadATL, a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved urban development in Atlanta, is my optimism. Despite all the posts I’ve written highlighting the negative sides of our city’s urbanism (or lack thereof), underneath it all is a genuine belief that Atlanta is capable of success. But my optimism is being tested these days. We can repair the damage from decades of car-centric planning decisions, reverse the neglect we’ve shown to the needs of people getting around without driving, and build the essential housing we need to be a city where everyone is welcome. But will we?

Darin Givens

Darin Givens is a web developer at Georgia Tech who volunteers with local nonprofit ThreadATL as an advocate for improving Atlanta’s urbanism. He used to be a journalist, but quickly realized what no one told him of that industry ahead of time: it pays crap.