In search of Atlanta's Missing Middle


|| In search of Atlanta's Missing Middle ||

My family lives in a loft in a small, seven-unit warehouse in Inman Park. Most of our neighbors are businesses and we live in what was previously an office space. Otherwise, it’s ideal – in a great school district, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and city life, and I can ride my bike (6-minutes) or walk (20-minutes) to my office at Industrious, a co-working space inside Ponce City Market. That commute is a direct, car-free route along the Atlanta Beltline – a transformative urban infrastructure that is changing the way people live in the city. The project began as my graduate thesis at Georgia Tech back in 1999 and today it’s our route to the park, the grocery, or to meet friends for dinner. We are truly living a dream.

Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography

Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography

Our loft, however, was hard to come by. When we moved to this part of town, we couldn’t afford a single-family house and we weren’t sure we wanted one anyway. Our previous home was amazing, but its upkeep was expensive and took a lot of time out of our already-busy lives. We were ready for something else and open to unconventional ideas.

Even so, when we looked at multi-family buildings or non-residential alternatives in the neighborhood, our options were seriously limited. Almost all the new, larger developments were designed for single people, roommates, and couples – it would be hard to make them work for a family. We found a smattering of small, older apartment buildings that are better designed for families, but the units got snatched up very quickly. And the new slew of townhouses being built in the area were mostly too expensive – in fact, we couldn’t afford our loft if we were trying to buy it today.

The need for this kind of housing is an enormous and largely untapped opportunity for both communities and builders. It’s called “missing middle” housing – the middle ground between single family houses and multi-story apartments that has been largely missing from American homebuilding for generations – certainly in places like Atlanta. It takes many forms, including traditional townhouses, row-houses, or brownstones, as well as small apartment buildings and individual garage apartments – what city planners call “accessory dwelling units,” or ADU’s.

The missing middle also includes less-traditional alternatives. Lofts like ours are carved out of old industrial or commercial buildings but these too often do not include bedroom doors, storage, or other features required by most families. “Micro-unit” apartments and “tiny houses” trade square footage for location. “Co-housing” developments cluster individual units around shared recreational spaces or gardens and encourage residents to share meals, tools, and services like laundry or housekeeping. “Shared housing” goes even further with shared rooms, kitchens, formal agreements for housework or homecare, and sometimes even hotel-like features and services.

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Whether traditional or new, these forms of middle housing are good for communities for two reasons. The first is that they cultivate diversity, an essential characteristic for the economic and cultural resiliency of urban neighborhoods – not to mention it makes them more interesting. We all benefit when we live with and among people of different ages, incomes, races, ethnicities, religious or cultural affiliations, economic or educational status, sexual orientations, gender identities, or political persuasions; people who work different types of jobs at different times of day; people with varied interests like hunting or quilting; night-owls and early birds; homebodies and jet-setters; wallflowers and showboats; and people with different attitudes, philosophies, or outlooks on life. Real diversity like this is supported by a diverse stock of housing options.

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The second reason middle housing is good for us is that it increases density. Relatively low-density areas like Atlanta’s cherished intown neighborhoods need more people to support transit, retail, healthcare, and other services within walking distance. In this way, neighborhood-scaled middle density is part of a strategic approach to managing the growth and regional traffic that seems to consume another neighborhood every day. If we don’t have to travel so far for every trip, we have a chance of maintaining a high quality of life in the face of increasing and seemingly-inevitable regional congestion.

In cities, density and diversity work together to support community vitality through more and better shopping, recreational, and cultural amenities. They strengthen investments in transit and other forms of mobility and improve public safety by providing more “eyes on the street” at all times of day or night. Middle housing allows us to support aging parents, young students or newlyweds, immigrants, artists, mechanics, service workers, and others who contribute to both our economy and lifestyle. We all need to live in these communities if we want them to function and thrive.

For those of us who want more middle housing, there are several things we can do. We can become YIMBYs (Yes-In-My-Back-Yard) for any reasonable effort that supports diversity and density in our neighborhoods. This can be related to specific development proposals near our homes, or to general policies that expand housing options – ADUs, for example, (they are currently illegal), reduced requirements for home or lot size, and other needed updates to our zoning codes. We can advocate for the elimination of parking requirements as a strategy to discourage driving, decrease housing construction costs, and increase the number of units possible on any given parcel of land. We can also support related efforts to expand affordable housing, knowing that both investments and regulation are required to achieve density that is truly diverse.

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This work is urgent. Whether we want change or not, our region is set to grow by 2.5 million people over the next twenty years, and in that time, central Atlanta will at least double its current population. That kind of growth represents incredible opportunity and there’s no excuse to not include everyone. In fact, an inclusive approach to growth will make our region even more prosperous. To achieve that best outcome, however, there are many things we must do – employment, education, mobility, opportunity, affordability – and more middle housing should be an essential part of our strategy.

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|| Q&A With Ryan Gravel ||

1. What is the most important next step for Atlanta in order to start producing missing middle housing options?

We need to loosen regulations and allow ADUs and other small housing projects (2-10 units) in neighborhoods, and we should eliminate their parking requirements. Let’s let the market determine if people prefer off-street parking or better/larger/cheaper homes. The world is changing, and so is Atlanta – let’s give people an incentive to ditch their car.

2. If I have a friend or neighbor who is against density because to them it means more traffic and street parking. How do I start the conversation to explain why density is actually a really good thing?

It’s important for people to understand that with the regional growth that is coming whether we like it or not, traffic in central Atlanta is not going to get better and our streets will be full of parked cars. With that as a given, our best strategy is to make sure our communities are still great places to live, and that means sufficient density to support local economic ecosystems so that we don’t have to travel so far, and so we don’t have to drive to get there.

3. I've heard you talk about Atlanta and its place in history. What is Atlanta's opportunity to lead out in the missing middle housing?

Embracing change is in Atlanta’s DNA, and we have a history of stepping up to a challenge. If we look at the affordability crisis in cities like New York and San Francisco, we can see that that’s where we’re heading. If we embrace that change, however, and act quickly to do something about it, we can leverage change to actually improve our quality of life. Middle housing is central to any such strategy because it lets the private market lead the way – another Atlanta legacy.

4. Lastly, what Atlanta development or project are you excited about?

The Atlanta Beltline, of course – and it’s important to name it and remind ourselves that it’s not finished. We’ve got a long way to go and I’m still excited about the opportunity to get it right. We’re not too late, but especially on the issues of housing and transit – we need to act quickly!