In early February, the city commission in Decatur, Georgia voted to amend the city’s zoning law to allow the construction of “duplex, triplex, and quadruplex residential units” in “single-family residential zoning districts” — what many housing advocates call missing middle housing.
The legislation followed on the heels of 20 years of special studies, litigation and resident agitation over the city’s declining affordable housing stock, gentrification and displacement. By early 2023, it was too late to preserve the Atlanta suburb’s affordable housing stock. As for Decatur’s diversity, the tipping point for demographic and economic inversion had been reached long ago.
Decatur’s new zoning law anticipates spurring the production of new so-called “missing middle housing” by allowing apartments and duplexes to be built in areas currently zoned for single-family housing. Despite comments by city officials and media, the new law can’t undo decades of inaction to prevent displacement and demographic inversion: the conversion of space, namely Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood, previously occupied by a majority-Black population and affordable homes into gentrified space filled with million-dollar McMansions and townhomes.
The damage has been done in the rapidly-gentrifying city, and it is irreparable.
Over the past 12 years, I have documented Decatur’s changes through photography, archival research and oral history interviews. My research has informed a decade of academic journal articles, blog posts, conference papers, public programs and teaching. Though Decatur’s boosters breathlessly tout the impending arrival of the city’s new missing middle housing, there is compelling evidence that the city once had lots of affordable housing and diversity: small, affordable single-family homes, duplexes, apartments and a diverse Black population with multiple economic strata.
Three pivotal points in Decatur’s recent history illustrate where the city’s missing middle housing went. The first was a 2003 lawsuit filed to block the demolition of an apartment complex and the construction of new high-end townhomes. That was followed by the formation of special task forces to study affordable housing and, in 2013, a failed effort to impose a moratorium on single-family home demolitions.
Collectively, these episodes provide a roadmap to the many Atlanta area landfills where Decatur’s missing middle housing went and to the dispersed suburban communities where the city’s Black and lower-income residents moved.
Multifamily housing in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood in 2014 before redevelopment (top) and after in 2015 (bottom). (Photos by David S. Rotenstein)
In the early 2000s, playwright Valetta Anderson and her partner Cotis Weaver were living in a ranch house in Oakhurst. Before the 1960s, Oakhurst was an all-white neighborhood. Landmark civil rights legislation and Supreme Court cases opened the door to Black home ownership and to white flight. In the 1970s, it became one of the nation’s first Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program sites where vacant and foreclosed homes were sold for one dollar.
Next door to Anderson and Weaver’s home was an apartment complex with one duplex and three apartment buildings: 14 residential units, according to court documents. A developer bought the property with plans to demolish the buildings and construct 18 townhomes with price tags ranging from $245,000 to $275,000. Then zoned as low-density residential, the developer sought to have the property rezoned to medium-density residential.
In the years leading up to the redevelopment next to Anderson’s home, city officials repeatedly cited the owner for code violations: trash, poor maintenance, vermin. But the enforcement wasn’t aggressive and the conditions for tenants in the building deteriorated. “It smelled. It had rats coming up out of the ground,” Anderson told me in 2014. “You know, that building was next to the school, but the school was all Black so who’s worrying about rats, you know.”
Anderson, Weaver and three of their near neighbors sued Decatur in 2003 over the decision to rezone the apartment lot. Their initial complaint had three parts. They wanted the city to reverse the rezoning; enforce its ordinances to abate the nuisance created by the apartments; and reconsider recent or pending zoning applications “to change the land use designation or zoning.”
Testimony at the January 2003 Decatur Planning Commission included concerns that the proposed project would set a precedent for future redevelopment plans, including an apartment complex located around the corner. Though the plaintiffs’ case rested on concerns for potential impacts by new higher density units and changes to community character, they also anticipated other impacts including accelerated teardowns and gentrification. At the February 2003 City Commission meeting where the rezoning was approved, the developer conceded that “neighborhood residents had voiced concerns including affordable housing options.”
Anderson and her fellow plaintiffs lost their case and the apartments were demolished. Before voting to approve the rezoning, the City Commission included a requirement that three of the new units be “affordable”: priced for a family of four making 80% or less of the area median income. As the litigants expected, the apartment property around the corner was rezoned in 2011 and demolished, replaced by nine single-family homes.
The multi-family unit teardowns were among several in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood between 2011 and 2020. Two large single-family homes replaced a Fayetteville Road apartment building in 2011; the apartment buildings in an Oakview Road complex last known as Chateau Daisy were replaced in 2014 by 15 high-end townhomes; two single-family homes recently replaced a pair of apartment buildings on Second Avenue.
Multifamily housing on Second Ave. in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood before redevelopment (top) and after (bottom). (Photos via Google)
Between 2007 and 2020, Decatur municipal officials formed several task forces and hired consultants to study housing issues and to offer policy recommendations. A 2008 “Affordable Housing Study” offered 10 recommendations. One of these, a proposal to allow accessory dwelling units, was implemented, and two other recommendations were partially implemented. The 2020 “Report on the Findings and Recommendations for Decatur’s Future Affordability and Inclusivity” restated much of the earlier and struck a more immediate note: Decatur suddenly realized that it had a “shortage of decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing.” The city conceded that it had an affordable housing crisis.
The final pathway to finding Decatur’s missing missing middle housing brings us to an October 2013 city commission meeting. Elected officials heard passionate pleas to protect and preserve the city’s vulnerable Black residents, environment and affordable housing stock.
After hearing all of the speakers make their cases, the city commission still declined to enact a moratorium on teardowns. It did, however, vote for a moratorium on tree cutting. “There’s potential that it might be too late. There are a lot of folks who have already sold, cashed out, and we may have missed that,” said then-City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham just before voting against the teardown moratorium. “And I’m not sure that a moratorium at this point is going to stop the bleeding that we’ve already got going on.”
Lessons for other cities
Decatur’s new zoning law was predictable. It is a cosmetic attempt to mitigate damage caused by decades of municipal policies that privileged new development and that promoted gentrification.
Creating new missing middle housing won’t restore all of the affordable housing sent to landfills and it won’t bring back the displaced people. Nor will it restore the communities that the city’s policies helped to destroy.
Zoning is only one piece in a much bigger puzzle. “There is a belief that the zoning is the key to unlocking all of these new housing units,” David Garcia, policy director at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, told NPR recently. “I think maybe it’s more like the first step.”
In Decatur, it might have been one of several first steps that could have included impact fees on developers, an affordable housing trust fund and other tools to preserve existing affordable housing stock. Zoning changes 20 years ago could have incentivized producing as well as preserving affordable housing.
Had the city acted on its 2008 affordable housing report or taken a different approach when residents pleaded with municipal leaders to preserve affordable housing, Decatur might today be a very different city.
David Rotenstein is a historian and folklorist living in Pittsburgh. He does oral history and cultural documentation work and writes on the intersection of race, place and the production of history.