Athens-Clarke County commissioners will vote next month to accept a “missing middle” affordable housing report that describes how the local government can add to the county’s housing stock by allowing more density in walkable neighborhoods.
Currently, housing types like duplexes, townhouses and small courtyard-style apartment buildings are banned in areas zoned single-family, although some older ones have been grandfathered in. In multifamily zones, they’re allowed but discouraged because developers generally seek the maximum density to maximize profits.
“We have a lot of housing that is single-family houses, small houses, and then we have a lot of large apartment complexes downtown, these large multi-story apartment complexes,” Commissioner Tim Denson said at the Sept. 19 agenda-setting meeting. “We don’t have a lot of stuff in the middle, though. That’s missing.”
The report, produced by Berkley, CA-based consultants Opticos Design, recommends going back to a pre-World War II style of development, when small apartment buildings mingled with single-family homes in walkable neighborhoods, before planning trends turned toward the automobile. The result would be similar to neighborhoods like Cobbham and Five Points, rather than the auto-centric neighborhoods cities started to encourage in the 1950s.
Amidst a national spike in housing costs, Athens’ median home price is now $318,000, up 35% since 2020, in part because new buyers outnumber the number of new homes being built. “We are definitely facing a housing crisis as we speak, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t begin to adopt measures like increasing density in single-family neighborhoods,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.
It won’t be easy, though. Accepting the report doesn’t implement any of its recommendations—the commission has to approve those individually before they would take effect. And Manager Blaine Williams warned of pushback from homeowners who may not want additional density. “It could become controversial because it’s different from what people are accustomed to,” Williams said.
Commissioner Ovita Thornton said she would vote to accept the study, but questioned why more options were not presented, like removing obstacles to manufactured homes. However, Mayor Kelly Girtz said the “missing middle” report is merely one of several strategies under consideration as county officials work toward a comprehensive overhaul of the local zoning code in the next year to 18 months.
Girtz also announced that ACC will be seeking an approximately $200,000 planning grant from the federal government to devise ways to improve Hawthorne Avenue. The grant would come from a $1 billion fund in Democrats’ 2021 infrastructure law aimed at removing or replacing roads that segregate cities because they are difficult to cross—mainly freeways erected during the Urban Renewal era in the 1960s.
“I’m thrilled to hear Hawthorne Avenue will be getting the attention it needs,” Link said. “It’s a dangerous place both to drive and to walk, and it really divides the community.”
There have been 450 crashes on Hawthorne in the past five years, Williams told commissioners. “It is one of the historically most dangerous segments of road in Athens-Clarke County, according to crash data,” he said.
Revisions to the county animal control ordinance are also on the Oct. 4 agenda. They will make it easier to participate in the TNR (trap-neuter-release or trap-neuter-return) program for feral cats, as well as strengthen regulations on the sale and neglect of pets, said Denson, who chairs the commission’s Government Operations Committee, which wrote the proposed revisions.
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