Decatur Next

Decatur Diary | October 27, 2010

“Decatur for Life”: Y’all Come,
Stay as Long as You Like

Matching the commitment of our first Community Academy session, around 60 residents gathered Monday night, October 25, to take on some key “Lifelong Community” goals — affordability, diversity and choice — from the round table sessions earlier this year.

In short, they gathered to determine how Decatur could offer options for anyone who wants to join our community, and that anyone already here be able to stay as long as they’d like.

Things began with attendees reviewing a series of displays covering the three categories where such goals could be addressed within the broader Strategic Plan: housing, access to basic needs, and community life (click each for a .pdf look at its display).

Next was a brief presentation (2.3mb .pdf) by Ben Brown, who spoke about some of the unavoidable demographic trends — driven by both the retiring Baby Boomers and their children, who are now coming of age — that Decatur will have to contend with over the next several decades, along with a brief look at their preferences and how some communities are already working to accommodate them.

Together with all this baseline information was a series of vignettes — “putting a face on lifelong community” — that showed typical individual scenarios that are not currently well served in Decatur. Together, they illustrated the challenges of inclusion and aging-in-place across the spectrums of age, race, and income:

John, 64, and Sarah, 62, have lived in Decatur for 30 years. They’re very active, their children are now grown and they would like to downsize.

Sarah is an avid gardener and wants to continue to live with at least some yard.

They would like to build a 900 square foot accessory dwelling in their backyard, then rent out their primary house, which is paid for, for supplemental retirement income. Not only does this allow for an “onsite landlord” scenario, the most neighborhood-friendly rental arrangement, it also allows them to stay in the neighborhood they love and lets Sarah retain some yard for her garden.

Their challenge is that the city’s zoning requirements for an accessory dwelling are more restrictive than they are for an accessory building (an office, for example) and they’re unable to meet them on a modest, though fairly common, urban lot.

Janice is in her late 20s with a professional job earning $49,000 a year. Like many people her age, her life is all about friends and the flexibility necessary for ever-changing plans and ever-emerging opportunities.

She’s looking for an apartment with onsite management, something new without any real maintenance needs, that provides a true “lock and leave” lifestyle. She wants it to be something walkably located “where the action is,” among other young professionals, and in close proximity to reliable transit. Ideally, she’d love to give up her car altogether, but knows only a few places in the Atlanta metro area can make that possible.

Janice’s challenge is that downtown Decatur offers very little in the way of centrally-managed rental apartments. She could rent from a condo owner but feels both the building management issues and social mix would not be exactly what she’s looking for.

Paul is a single father of one earning $58,000 a year in a fairly demanding job. He has primary custody of his son, Edward, and is looking to make the logistics of life as easy as possible while maximizing his available parenting/family time.

Accordingly, he is looking for a reasonably priced apartment, with minimal maintenance obligations, within a few walkable blocks of a good elementary school. He would prefer something integrated with the neighborhood rather than isolated in an “apartment complex” so that Edward has access to the widest collection of other kids.

His challenge is that, around Decatur’s elementary schools, accessory apartments, duplexes, and three to four unit, neighborhood-scaled apartment buildings are in very limited supply. In terms of easily maintained new construction, even more so.

Mary is a widow, 73 years old, who lives alone in a two bedroom, 1 bath bungalow which she owns. She receives Social Security and is on a limited fixed income. She loves her neighborhood but worries about her property taxes and their potential to make her life in Decatur unaffordable. She is currently in fairly good health but is becoming concerned about the prospects of living alone.

Mary’s home has a full, unfinished basement as well as a garage at the rear corner of the lot. Her son is looking to move in with her, either by converting the home to a duplex by building out the basement or by adding an apartment over the garage.

This would provide Mary with both peace-of-mind and some supplemental income. Her challenge is that our current ordinances make either scenario difficult.

Once the table discussions began, participants were asked to take nine cards, reflecting the categories and subcategories from the large display boards, and agree on a ranking for them, starting with areas where Decatur needed the most work and working towards those where the city is doing well already. Curiously, all six tables came to roughly the same conclusion: Decatur needs the most work in the areas of housing cost, available housing types, and proximity to daily needs.

From there, each table was instructed to take their top three prioritized issues and discuss ideas and approaches to address them, making particular note of what (such as existing zoning ordinances) might be standing in the way of each goal.

Ideas presented, like the crowd, were diverse, as demonstrated in this video:

The evening concluded with a reminder of the next Community Academy session — Thursday, November 4, 7-9pm at the Holiday Inn Conference Center — where we’ll focus on the Economics of the Complete Community. See you there!

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