City DopeNews

ACC Commissioners Send Mixed Messages on ‘Missing Middle’ Housing

Apartments with full kitchens over garages, like these proposed for Oglethorpe Avenue, are currently illegal in Athens' single-family zones.

Athens-Clarke County commissioners are likely to approve an Oglethorpe Avenue development that promises to provide affordable—at least, relatively—housing in a growing urban setting. They may not look so favorably, though, on a zoning code change that could increase the in-town housing stock.

The proposed development at 1165 Oglethorpe Ave., in front of the Forest Heights subdivision, would consist of 14 townhouses, six cottages, a quadruplex, a triplex, an 11-unit apartment building and 7,200 square feet of commercial space on 3.85 acres originally slated to become a doctor’s office that was partially graded but never built.

Josh Koons, the landscape architect for the project, called it an example of the type of higher-density, lower-cost housing that many commissioners and residents want to see. “It’s been designed for affordability in the missing middle housing sector by streamlining infrastructure, minimizing car-oriented improvements and using smaller footprints to increase density,” he said at the Nov. 15 agenda-setting meeting. 

No one mentioned specific prices, but Joe Polaneczky, a local real estate agent and one of the developers, said they would be “noticeably less than what you see in-town.” At the time, two three-bedroom Forest Heights homes were on the market for over $300,000, and similar homes can go for half a million dollars a few blocks away in Normaltown. 

An application to the ACC Planning Department says the development “is intended to provide multiple options for middle income home buyers,” defined as households making 65%–150% of the area median income, or about $40,000–$90,000 a year. Five rental and/or for-sale units would be reserved for people on the lower end of that spectrum, and seven for seniors 55 and up.

County planners recommended denying the request, with the main sticking point being the lack of a street connecting 1165 Oglethorpe to Landor Drive behind it, which Forest Heights residents did not want. Instead, the new development is designed around greenspace rather than a street—which ACC code does not allow—and a walking path will connect it to Forest Heights, allowing residents there to access Seth Hendershot’s planned neighborhood cafe/pub and a daycare run by local nonprofit Destined Inc. on foot. “Why is the car required for that connectivity?” Koons asked.

Six planning commissioners, however, recommended approving the development, with one abstention. And no county commissioners objected to it. “This is exactly the kind of thing we need in this community,” ACC Commissioner Jesse Houle said.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport had just one request: “I hope that Hendershot’s can bring back Ike & Jane.”

Davenport and several other commissioners, though, frowned on a proposed change to the zoning code that could make building smaller housing units in-town easier. A proposal from ACC’s inclusionary housing working group would allow accessory dwelling units—or ADUs, also called in-law suites or granny flats—in single-family neighborhoods. The 1165 Oglethorpe plan includes garage apartments for each of the cottages. That’s currently illegal, hence one of the waiver requests.

The change wouldn’t be a cure-all, Houle said, but it would be a small step toward solving Athens’ affordable housing crisis. “Over time, maybe we get to the point where thoughtful developments don’t need 20 waivers,” Houle said.  

The inclusionary housing task force’s mission is not only to find ways for middle-class artists, musicians, teachers and others to be able to afford to buy homes in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods where they currently rent, but to provide what’s becoming increasingly rare safe and affordable housing for lower-income renters, said Alice Kinman, the group’s chair, a former county commissioner and current planning commissioner.

The Athens Housing Advocacy Team, a group formed to organize low-income renters, recently released a report detailing substandard conditions at several local properties purchased by Florida-based Prosperity Capital Partners, which pushed out residents by raising their rents and refusing to accept Section 8 government vouchers. The group found that many tenants still reported pest infestations, mold and fire hazards despite the increased rents. In addition, local activists alleged finding missing smoke alarms and fire extinguishers while canvassing earlier this year at the largely Section 8 University Oaks apartment complex off West Broad Street, where one building caught fire Friday, Nov. 18, destroying 14 units and displacing 27 people. However, the ACC Fire Department released a statement Nov. 21 crediting working smoke alarms with saving residents’ lives. 

According to supporters, allowing ADUs up to 800 square feet is “low-hanging fruit” for adding to the local housing stock and relieving upward pressure on rents. “We felt like this was a good way to bring some gentle density into our neighborhoods by making a relatively small change,” Kinman said.

Skeptics like commissioners Mike Hamby, Allison Wright and Davenport raised concerns that loosening regulations on ADUs would simply lead to more short-term rentals like Airbnbs. “I just don’t see this option helping us with people sleeping out here on the steps [of City Hall], people sleeping in tents, people who are getting evicted,” Wright said at the Nov. 15 meeting. “I think it’s additional luxury in the backyard of somebody’s house that can cause the concerns of the traffic and the parking and the noise that we’ve been hearing about.”

Wright and Hamby said the proposal needs more time for the public to weigh in, and should be considered alongside another proposal to regulate short-term rentals that is currently under discussion by the commission’s Government Operations Committee.

Kinman, Houle and Commissioner Russell Edwards, though, described the change as relatively minor. ADUs are currently allowed, as long as they don’t have a 220-volt outlet. That means no stoves. Such stoveless units are fine for short-term use but unsuitable for long-term renters. 

“Guest houses are already allowed. Really the only thing… they can’t have a stove,” Kinman said. “I would encourage you to go on Airbnb and look around. There are a bunch of units like these already that are being used as short-term rentals.”

Allowing full kitchens in ADUs would actually make it more likely that property owners rent them out to people who live here rather than visitors, Houle and Edwards said. 

Commissioner Melissa Link proposed a compromise that would cap ADUs at one bedroom and add parking requirements, but it drew no vocal support. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t want a family to have a home where their kid can have their own room,” Edwards said.

Both the Oglethorpe development and the ADU policy are scheduled for a vote Tuesday, Dec. 6.