“General Welfare” for the Next Generation

Lately I’ve been thinking about “health, safety, and general welfare” — the basis by which zoning is typically legitimized and measured — and wondering just how great a disconnect needs to form between our purported values and our land use regulations before we admit that something’s not working.

First, some caveats: I’m not an expert in zoning (though I work with some of the best), I’m not a lawyer, and this isn’t a legal argument. It’s a view from the front lines, where people have certain aspirations for their communities and zoning exists as the tool that either enables or prevents those aspirations from materializing.

For example

Take Atlanta. Not because it’s any more worthy of critical review than most other places. Just that it’s nearby and allows me to actually be familiar with the areas I’m talking about.

If you head east from the city’s downtown business district, you’ll pass through a series of historic trolley neighborhoods largely built out during the early half of the 20th century. For the past couple of decades, many of these long-disinvested neighborhoods, especially south of the CSX rail line, have experienced increasing gentrification pressure. Under such pressure, two concerns get frequently voiced: housing affordability and the likelihood of being able to stay.

From a planning perspective, one tool available to address (in part) such concerns is the accessory dwelling unit (ADU). The allowance for a second, smaller dwelling to co-occupy a single-family lot does two things: First, it allows the market to increase affordable housing opportunities at the neighborhood level. Each ADU contributes to the rental housing supply but does so at a scale that most neighborhood residents are comfortable with. The more ADUs that get built, the greater the supply and, over time, the degree of price competition. This combats the often seemingly excessive price hikes that seek to capitalize on the relative scarcity of neighborhood rentals.

Beyond that, ADUs can also provide a revenue stream that, in certain circumstances, can help subsidize a homeowner’s mortgage. Or, if the home is paid off, can generate additional monthly income to help offset rising property taxes.

Perfect solution? Of course not, and certainly not a comprehensive one by any measure, but clearly one that can contribute to the “general welfare” as defined by those who actually reside in transitioning neighborhoods. So let’s look at the zoning (R-4) that governs large swaths of these Atlanta areas. Does it allow for ADUs?

In short, no. Not that you can’t house additional people on your property, mind you. Only that those people must either be your guest, your caretaker or your servant.

Your servant. If affordability, diversity and aging in place are indeed Atlanta values, it would seem to me that a more nuanced and responsive approach to land use is not only warranted in such cases, but fundamental to the “general welfare” of its communities. Particularly those experiencing the brunt end of market forces.

That’s a disconnect.

Health and safety?

Meanwhile, we keep accepting the conventional paradigm that sprawl development patterns, characterized by separated uses and the arterial highways that connect them, somehow contribute to health and safety, when the exact opposite is proving to be true. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been championing the issue for a while now and the data is clear: Communities where land use policy fosters active lifestyles through mixed uses and alternate modes of travel prove both healthier and safer.

So are we approaching a new era in which prevailing sentiments, and the political will that stems from them, will spawn legal challenges to sprawl, arguing that it categorically fails to meet the standard of health and safety? I wish I knew.

Don’t forget sustainability

Increasingly, cities and towns are using the lens of sustainability and its three pillars — economic, environmental, and social — as both a framework for policy and standard of measurement for results. Municipal actions, accordingly, must contribute to a healthy, local economy, serve water quality and other measures of environmental health, and/or foster a diverse and connected populace.

The net result of such actions leaves them pursuing and measuring their community’s general welfare along these lines. Which should, it seems to me (the layperson), establish some sort of legal standard by which subsequent land use decisions can be evaluated.

When will enough be enough?

There’s a pretty wide chasm between me being annoyed and the legal practice of land use coming to better reflect the reality of how people are increasingly choosing (or needing) to live. At what point will the challenges be made and new precedents set?

Personally, I don’t see it taking the form of revolution. Rather, I think we’ll continue down the path we’re on, where one community at a time begins to re-examine things previously taken — perhaps uncritically — to be true. And in the process, finding the “health, safety, and general welfare” of their communities poorly served by the outcomes of the status quo.

What say you, Counselors?

Scott Doyon

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Comments

  1. All one needs to do is cross the country by rail as I did recently and then look at the openers of Netflix movies that typically show montages of traffic to see the results of planning and design. The failure to say NO in capital letters and begin experimenting with truly car-free options is simply a sign of an impotence that pervades almost all institutions that exist in the self-evident reality which is preventing all but token movements that are in that context tragic.

  2. In areas like Los Angeles, the affordability of ADU’s is laughable. As areas gentrify the ADU becomes an unaffordable ADU. Typically in a westside neighborhood that is hot, a granny flat is 1800 – 2500 per month. We can also than Airbnb for doing it’s part in the ADU problem that pushes people out and takes rentals off the market for real people.

    Sadly everything that makes a community desirable eventually leads to hyper gentrification and skyrocketing costs. The artists and locals who made the community that way are pushed out. We need a new system, the US needs to stop the sick economic reality in this country that has allowed “real estate” to become a commodity rather than the basis for lasting communities. RDA was a great idea until it was co-opted by those who gamed the system.

    I mourn the loss of creative affordable communities that had history and welcomed our generation to be a part of it, not cursed us for bringing gentrified mixeduse

  3. Michelle says:

    Very well put. When I first moved to Atlanta on an entry-level salary (far from minimum wage though!), I was only able to live in some of the lower crime, amenity rich areas by seeking out grandfathered carriage houses and duplexes. Over time, the places where houses are affordable have been pushed further and further out. In fact, I like to joke that you can tell where property values will be unaffordable simply by overlaying walkability with good schools…

    But seriously, this can be solved. I conduct health impact assessments, HIA, on all sorts of public policy. They’ve been done on zoning in other states, and I’m always looking for a chance to do that somewhere in the Atlanta region. Evidence-based zoning that considered health effects would look very different.

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