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Building More Housing In-Town Would Make Housing More Affordable

I have watched with interest several of the most recent mayor and commission meetings, as there have been some new turns of events concerning the neighborhood where I live, West Hancock. During several public comment periods, over a couple of weeks of meetings, a few residents of West Hancock spoke to issues in our neighborhood. Curiously, even more folks who live in nearby neighborhoods also commented and offered ideas, explicitly or implicitly, that they believe would help us. Historic preservation and a change to single family zoning were mentioned, as they often are. Thankfully, a facilitator will be hired and a neighborhood planning process started where my neighbors can consider and decide what the best course will be for them.

Although I find it gratifying that there is outside interest in the goings-on in the West Hancock neighborhood, I think that there may be a more appropriate and significantly more effective way for those that live in the much more affluent neighborhoods that surround us to help Hancock and other similar areas in Athens: Look to your own neighborhood.

One reason Hancock is facing rapidly increasing property values—and the ensuing hardships and disruption—is that nearby areas like Cobbham, Boulevard and Normaltown have become too expensive for most to afford. Through a combination of zoning and overlays, adding new housing to these areas falls somewhere between expensive and impossible. But low-impact density options like in-law suites, duplexes, triplexes and even quadruplexes are a good fit for existing neighborhoods and could add hundreds of new residences to in-town Athens, making room in our most desirable areas for lower-cost options. Those changes would lessen the development pressure felt in our low income neighborhoods, but championing those options can only reasonably be done by the residents who live where the changes would be made.

Everybody these days seems to be talking about affordable housing, but I don’t hear many people talking about this: 60 percent of the population of Athens rents, but only 7 percent of all the land zoned for residential use is zoned multi-family. In a community where most people rent, we have set aside nearly all of the residential land for zonings that are designed for homeownership. That isn’t accidental. Our exclusionary single-family policies are the result of many people over many years relentlessly pushing for them. Those efforts were certainly well intended, but they have helped create today’s deeply inequitable housing landscape in Athens.

I hope people stay engaged in the discussion about affordable and equitable housing. I also hope that we come to realize that housing equity doesn’t just need to happen in other people’s neighborhoods. It’s probably going to need to happen, at least a little bit, in everyone’s neighborhood.