The Urban Atlanta/DeKalb Single-Family Infill Debate
I’ve been closely following the DeKalb County Infill Debate since it hit my radar in the summer of ‘05. After listening to months of arguments for and against, I’ve come to some conclusions, and have some salient observations about it.
For clarification, when I speak of "Infill", I am referring to the demolition and replacement of individual single-family homes in established neighborhoods with new single-family homes, usually larger than the original. (Infill can also be considered the redevelopment of large tracts of land with like or dissimilar construction and density, which is en entirely different subject altogether)
But first, a disclosure. By profession, I am a consulting systems analyst in the information technology business. But I am also a registered appraiser, and my educational background is in economics. I also am involved in a small company that purchases old houses, and replaces them with new ones which are usually larger. Yes, we do “Infill”.
As such, I would no doubt be considered by many to be one of the evil, greedy developers who is hell bent upon destroying DeKalb for no other reason than my selfish desire to get rich off of the backs of the good citizens who’ve been happily residing in their ranch houses for the last 50 years. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I live in a neighborhood that is currently being revitalized by Infill, and few things could make my wife, myself, and most of our neighbors happier.
You see, 15 years ago, the neighborhood we now live in was not a very pretty place. Too many homes were in various stages of neglect and disrepair. People didn’t feel secure here either. The house I live in today shows the scars of that age; you can see where the iron doors and bars that covered the windows were once mounted. A few houses in the neighborhood still have them. I wasn’t here back then, but I can only imagine it was one of those neighborhoods that you’d expect to see in the background in an episode of “Cops”; one of those places where people you didn’t know lived, and where you wouldn’t likely go on purpose.
About 10 years ago, that started to change. As
Over 6 years ago, we saw this potential and bought our house here. As I look at where the bars used to be, I can only imagine what a prison this house must have felt like in former times. But now our street is alive. Neighbors walk around the streets well after dark and say hi to each other. It's a friendly and fun place to live.
Our house is modest, but old. It’s been remodeled several times. It's served us well for the last 6 years, but it does show its age, with its less-than-even floors and leaning doorframes. And our heating bill shows it too, as it was built in the age when natural gas was practically considered a waste byproduct.
It has always been our intention to replace our aging cheap mass-produced post-war "box" with our "dream house" when the time was right. And we're not talking about building a "McMansion" either, but a modest 2-story house with a garage that will hardly have a larger footprint than our existing house. We have no interest in sacrificing our large yard and set-backs, or the small forest in the back yard. And now that that time is getting nearer, we're being told by people who think they know better that we shouldn't be able to build our house. And most of those people don’t even live in my neighborhood!
As our neighborhood re-invents itself, we've seen several "infill" houses go up on our street. We so believe in the potential of this neighborhood that we ourselves have invested in other properties here to do the same; to purchase run-down houses that have outlived their useful lives and replace them with modest, tasteful new homes that will add beauty and value back to the neighborhood, our neighborhood.
It's now up to our county government to decide if this is a
good thing. Should DeKalb continue this
renaissance? Or should a vocal minority
who thinks that DeKalb peaked in 1960 have their way, and stop all
redevelopment in its tracks?
If that's really going to be the case, then let's find out soon and be done with it so that we'll know that we should be investing our money elsewhere. If someone wants to buy our old home, at least I can show them where the bars go when they need to put them back.
For Infill, what are we tearing down?
Contrary to popular belief, we are not tearing down perfectly good houses. That would not make economic sense. Yes, I know there are neighborhoods where livable small houses are being dozed to make way for "McMansions" and "Hummer Homes", but these are the exceptions that are usually in the “hotter” niche neighborhoods and do not characterize most of DeKalb or most Infill activity.
Most of the houses we are replacing are ones that would require tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of refurbishment to make them marketable, even if potential buyers were interested in 900 to 1400 square-foot homes in these neighborhoods. And most properties purchased for Infill homes are hardly what most would consider architecturally remarkable, or even relevant. You will not find the guys from “This Old House” trying to save anything in our neighborhood. We are talking about usually 50+ year old cheaply made mass produced tract homes. Few are up to contemporary code, and some are completely unlivable. Some are so structurally compromised that there is no way to save them, economically or not.
In fact, what we are really doing in any other context could be considered "urban renewal". Consider this house:
This house is broken and not fixable. There is mold, mildew, leaky roof and failed foundation. The yard is a jungle.
Inside, it looks as though transients may have been staying there. And yet, the Infill Ordinance as originally proposed would not have allowed its replacement with something that is economically viable. Nobody wants to purchase a new 1000 square-foot 2 bed-1 bath house in this neighborhood for what it would cost to build one. With the county-wide Infill Ordinance as originally proposed, this house would remain unlivable and un-saleable. It would be subject to vandalism and transients. There would be minimal, if any tax revenue from it, and its presence would continue to depress the value of neighboring properties.
What are we replacing them with?
The kind of houses we build could hardly be considered “McMansions” that take up entire lots, like those typically characterized by those opposing Infill construction. In fact, they are rather modest by contemporary middle-class standards, that comfortably fit on their lots conforming to existing code. On average, they are around 2500 square feet, with 3 to 5 bedrooms and 2-car garages. That’s hardly a “mansion” by any rational standard. We abide by the existing set-backs. In fact, they are part of what makes our neighborhood attractive. We don’t want to “scrape” all the trees either, as too they are part of what makes the property attractive and desirable. We do a 1-for-1 replacement. That means no more demand on infrastructure and no more traffic. And since few existing houses in our neighborhood even have garages, it means fewer cars on the street or in driveways.
Which of these two homes would you prefer as your neighbor? Can anyone honestly say with a straight face that having the 2nd house next door would hurt their property’s value more than living next to the 1st one would?
Okay, to be fair, that was an extreme example. How about this more typical one? Consider this house:
This 2-bedroom/1-bath house is roughly 1300 square feet. It's been and expanded several times. It has minimal insulation and it's plumbing and electrical are woefully outdated. The garage, which appears to have once been an addition, had itself been converted to another room. Although livable, it wasn't terribly pretty, inside or out. I'd compare it to the type of place that a bunch of students might rent for $800/month.
What was it replaced with?
Infill Lowers Property Values
The economic arguments against infill have been everything from confused to ill-informed to just plain wrong. As having been educated in economics, and being a registered appraiser, I can say for a fact that most of what the proponents of this ordinance have argued is nonsense. The argument that Infill harms property values is simply ridiculous. In fact, in my neighborhood there are now bidding wars taking place for potential Infill properties. And the rising tide of property values raises the value of neighboring properties as the neighborhood becomes more desirable.
But you don't have to take my word on this. It's all on-line at the county. See for yourself at: https://dklbweb.dekalbga.org/taxcommissioner/search.asp. Just put in the address of the property you're curious about, and see what it last sold for. (You will find very few examples where a price actually went down)
And if Infill is so detrimental to property values, then why is it that one of the primary complaints about Infill is that it is causing people’s property taxes to go up?
That infill is destroying property value is simply misinformation spread by the proponents of this ordinance to gain additional support from the ill informed that otherwise wouldn't support it. In fact, you will not find any appraiser in this state that would be willing to sign his/her name to such a statement for fear of putting their license in jeopardy. Quite the opposite is true and one thing is certain; neighborhoods where redevelopment would be restricted or eliminated would be the ones where property values would be harmed. Especially at risk would be properties that do not meet the generic standards that any county-wide ordinance would define. The irony is that such properties without regulatory relief would be rendered unbuildable, and nearly worthless, and as in a self-fulfilling sense, would also harm the values of surrounding properties.
And now that hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds are being issued for DeKalb, a stagnating tax base is the last thing this county can afford. These bond issues demand that DeKalb’s tax base continue to expand in order to be repaid.
Infill Raises Property Values and causing my Property Taxes to go up
Wait! I thought Infill was destroying people’s property values. Never mind. The problem here is not with Infill, but with how property taxes are administered in this state. What Georgia needs is a Proposition 13-like reform, where property taxes on existing properties are capped to inflation or some other limiting metric. The county has little control over this, and under their breath the politicians like it that way since it means more money for them to spend.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed in state
government. Like in
Infill may, in fact, prevent your Taxes from going even Higher
Without a doubt, the size of our local government is continuing to grow. And on top of that, hundreds of millions of dollars in new bonds are being issued for various improvement projects around DeKalb. This represents cash plus interest that will eventually have to be paid back by the taxpayers of DeKalb, mostly via property taxes. If the tax base of DeKalb does not continue to grow in proportion to the growth in spending and debt, it can only mean that taxes will have to be raised on the existing citizens and properties of DeKalb. Since purchasers of Infill homes will be paying taxes on the purchase price of their homes, they will be carrying a far larger proportion of this burden than existing homeowners.
But don’t just take my word for it. Look at what’s happened to the residents of
the City of
(This is the real reason why the City of
What about those on fixed incomes?
Opponents to Infill have been arguing that it is most harmful to older residents on fixed incomes because of an increasing property tax burden. I would argue that the opposite is true; For most retirees who own their home, the equity in their property represents the single biggest piece of their retirement nest egg. That equity represents either future cash from the sale of their home, or as an estate to pass on to their heirs. Stagnating, or receding property values is what would be most harmful to these citizens by reducing the value of their estate, or making additional financing more expensive or not even possible.
Infill Lowers the Value of My House
No, at worst Infill just doesn’t allow your house to
appreciate at the rate that your land does.
Remember, the house on your property is a depreciating asset. Most homes, unless extensively and repeatedly renovated have a limited economic life. The only part of your property had does not depreciate, and does last forever is the land itself.
Infill Makes it so I cannot Improve my Property
This one is truly ironic. At the same time that Infill opponents argue that property owners should not be able to build the house they want on their property, they also argue that their ability to remodel or expand is being harmed by Infill.
The argument, as I think I understand it, is that since Infill homes basically create a higher standard for an older neighborhood, older existing homes are worth less, and additions to them do not add dollar-to-dollar value when it comes time to sell. Or it may be that in some neighborhoods where homes in any state are being purchased for Infill, there’s no point in investing in an addition since whoever is going to buy the home is just going to be tearing it down anyway.
Of course, this entire argument is dependant upon the assumption that additions in general even have a dollar-to-dollar return on investment. Unless your home is a total dump, they do not. Even in markets where Infill is not a factor, there are few additions or renovations that you can do to any home that has anything near a dollar-to-dollar return on investment. The additions that are most recognized as having the best return on investment such as adding a bathroom or finishing a basement only return about 95%! In fact, most renovations/additions return only 85% or less. For example, if you spend $20,000 on improvements to your home, there will not be an equal corresponding increase of $20,000 in the market price for your home. You may be increasing the market value of your property by only $18,000, or likely less. I think the idea that you will actually make money from investing in a major remodel or addition is a popular myth mainly promoted by the multitude of cable TV home-fix-it & "flipping" shows and the people selling 2nd mortgages and home equity credit lines. Many of those "flipping" shows are either exaggerated or outright frauds, and the mortgage industry will be happy to fund you because they expect that the appreciation of your land over time will more than cover the difference between what you borrowed and whatever market value you may have added to your structure.
Picture your exact same home in some other part of
The reality is that in an urban area such as
If you want to put an addition on your house, do it because you like living in your house and neighborhood, and you actually want a new bathroom, kitchen, or extra space. And if you really dislike Infill, then do it anyway, since a more expensive and up-to-date house is less desirable to Infill builders than old unimproved ones.
It’s fool’s gold to expect that such an investment is going to reap big returns when it comes time to sell, regardless of what they say on all those home improvement shows. Whatever value you think you are loosing on your house, you’ve more than made up for in the appreciation of your property. I think this is just another straw-man argument against Infill.
What about “Affordable Housing”?
Have you ever noticed that the same politicians who bemoan the dearth of “affordable housing” are usually the same ones who mindlessly advocate policies that only make housing both scarcer and more expensive to build, and thus to buy and rent?
Either way, it’s my opinion that over the long term, neighborhoods that opt-in to overlays may, in fact, become DeKalb’s “affordable housing”. Congratulations, and thank you for your sacrifice.
Is a Uniform-looking Neighborhood the end-all-be-all?
Opponents of Infill argue that Infill homes are bad because they are usually not consistent with the architectural style of existing homes in a neighborhood. In their effort to support this idea, they argue that builders of subdivisions typically build homes that are not only all in the same style, but that are practically identical. (These developments are frequently called “clone homes”, and it’s not a term of endearment) Never mind that builders do this not because of any grand architectural statement that they wish to make, but because it is the cheapest and lowest-risk thing for them to do. It’s mass production, with only a few sets of plans, and the exact same time and materials to build each one. In fact, in your more expensive and exclusive developments, the opposite is true; each house is built to be unique. I find it ironic that many people who would otherwise cringe at the notion of assigned uniformity in their lives would use this argument.
Height Restrictions: If you think tall roofs are ugly…
…wait until you see a squared off one. It’s the “law of unintended consequences”, where the marketplace responds rationally to what it sees as the irrational demands of politicians.
I haven’t yet seen any of these in DeKalb (although I have in other cities) but I am sure that pretty soon we will. (If anyone does see one in DeKalb, please let me know so I can put a picture here)
We need a more rational, understandable, and consistent method for defining what a base level is and what height should be limited to. If one group of well educated professionals finds it so difficult to impossible to rationally explain the standard to other group of well educated professionals, then something is obviously wrong. At almost every meeting we've been to, there's been this lingering uncertainty as to what would be allowed on any kind of lot that was not totally flat and level. And very little of DeKalb is flat and level. It this is going to be a legal and enforceable standard, it must be able to be understood by everyone in the business. Also, proponents of the Infill ordinance find it easy to show us infill that is not compatible with the proposed standard, but difficult to show us properties that ARE compatible. Naturally, this makes us uneasy.
Clearly, the demand exists in DeKalb for 2,000 to 3,000 square-foot 2-story + basement homes on 12,000 square-foot lots. If ordinances are going to make it difficult to build traditional-looking 2-story + basement homes with sloping roofs, they are going to start building 2-story + basement homes with relatively flat roofs with squared-off fronts, like you typically find in communities with view blockage ordinances. If you are predisposed to think that the current standard of infill home is ugly, just wait until these start showing up in your neighborhood!
Is this conflict really about Demographics?
At many of the Infill hearings, it quickly became apparent to me that the overwhelming majority of those demanding the Infill ordinance were post-middle-aged people who are not currently concerned about their property values as they’ve already reaped the majority of that benefit. You found relatively few very senior people, and practically no younger representation. It’s my suspicion is that should the overlays be established, the moods of these residents will change drastically when they decide they wish to leave, and find themselves trapped by deteriorating housing stock and stagnating property values.
Keep those damn “rich people” out of here!
Infill has too often been misrepresented as being about “McMansions” and “Hummer Homes”, because opponents to it wish to appeal to deeply seeded levels of the emotion of envy.
How far we’ve come if this is the biggest threat to our neighborhoods that we face! 30-40 years ago, the crisis was people fleeing neighborhoods because the “poor” were moving in and property values were dropping. Now DeKalb is faced with the “rich” moving in, and people are screaming “Keep them out of my neighborhood!” Amazing.
What is “Responsible Development”?
Over the last 5 years, inside-the-perimeter property and
Infill has become increasingly popular because those living in suburban
Infill housing actually serves as a buffer between these two interests, by reinvigorating existing developments without increasing population density and its subsequent demands on infrastructure.
Infill helps to prevent Assemblage and High Density Re-developments
One phenomenon that we’ve seen, and will continue to see is “assemblages”, where many adjoining single house properties are purchased and combined into one large property, and then re-developed as either apartments, town homes, or subdivided into many more highly dense single family houses. These developments typically replace single family homes at a 4:1 or greater ratio, are usually very dense, have lesser setbacks and are usually quite tall. Infill actually prevents this phenomenon.
Infill keeps neighborhoods alive, and constantly renewing themselves. Neighborhoods that do not renew themselves will continue to stagnate, making it easier and economical for developers to purchase contiguous depressed properties. Neighborhoods with active Infill activity makes doing assemblages far too expensive for larger scale developments. This keeps density, congestion, and demands on infrastructure in a neighborhood at the status quo.
Who's really getting rich off of Infill?
It's not us, but your neighbors! Many of them, especially those who've bought their homes 10, 20, or more years ago have reaped tremendous gains. On one recent purchase, the seller, knowing that we were going to tear down his home and build a new one, said "Thanks for ruining my neighborhood!" as he walked out of the closing with nearly a quarter-million dollar check in his hand. This guy had made a nearly 500% profit on his property, which is several times more than we will make by tearing it down and building a new one. I don't think these people will ever grasp the irony.
The “I’ve Got Mine, Screw You” Argument
Infill opponents argue that “outsiders” are invading their neighborhoods
and fundamentally changing them to something different, and wax nostalgic for
the “good old days”. That’s undeniably
true. But it’s not the first time, and not hardly as radical as the last time it happened in
DeKalb. The reality is that Atlanta is
changing all around us, and will continue to do so as hundreds of thousands, if
not millions more move here within the next decade, and people who otherwise
might reside in the suburbs decide that they’d rather live in-town. I can only imagine what
How about enforcing the existing laws first?
During the early Infill meetings where the Infill committee was making its case for the ordinance, they showcased many construction horror stories to justify the need for a new ordinance. As they explained the most egregious examples of construction, it occurred to me that most of what they were using as justification for the ordinance was already addressed in existing law, such as tree clearing and respect for proper set-backs. So my reaction wasn’t to cheer the need for new laws, but to wonder where the existing enforcement was.
Politicians are always eager to pass new laws to prove they are doing something, but aren’t particularly diligent about seeing to it that existing laws are enforced. This is because the latter is harder work and brings few accolades. In the long run, it really doesn’t matter how many laws you pass if everyone, especially those who wish to skirt them, knows that enforcement is lax. All you are doing is discouraging, inconveniencing, and raising the cost to the honest property owners while the dishonest ones will continue with business as usual.
The “Overlay District” vs. “County-Wide” Ordinance
From the beginning, we questioned the logic of addressing this as a county-wide building ordinance vs. a neighborhood zoning issue. It’s absurd that a vocal minority with specific complains in specific neighborhoods with specific kinds of houses should be able to define what kind of construction is appropriate for every other neighborhood in the entire county, especially when most people outside those neighborhoods don't have a problem with Infill or their rising property values. (A perfect example of this could be seen at most of the meetings, where the “pro ordinance” people were usually from specific neighborhoods whereas the “anti ordinance” people were from all over the county) The Residential Infill Overlay District (RIOD) is a rational solution for the neighborhoods where the clear majority of property owners that really want Infill stopped can do so. They can keep their neighborhoods as they are for the moment, and investors can stop wasting time, money, and energy in neighborhoods where they clearly are not wanted, and direct their resources towards neighborhoods that are interested in renewal. As for the overlay ordinance, it's my prediction that…
A) There will be relatively few additional overlays established because once every property owner in a given neighborhood learns about and understands what an overlay means to them and the restrictions that it would place on the use of their property, relatively few will be willing to encumber the potential of their property.
B) Within 10 to 15 years, the majority of owners in neighborhoods that go under overlays will be petitioning to get out from under them when they see the quality of the housing stock in their neighborhood deteriorate and their property values stagnate in comparison to neighborhoods that are not under an overlay.
The problems with the RIOD as voted on for DeKalb county are:
A) Only 55% of owners are required? That's hardly what I'd call a "clear majority". For heaven's sake; it takes the approval of at least 80% of the owners in a neighborhood just to get speed bumps! It should take at least 80% of owners approval before neighbors should be allowed to determine what other neighbors can do with their property.
B) The definition of "neighborhood" was left deliberately vague. Pretty much, the only requirement in the ordinance is that a "neighborhood" consist of at least 20 homes. This provides too much wiggle room for people to redefine what constitutes a neighborhood.
C) A single citizen now has the power to file a zoning change for an entire neighborhood without anyone else's knowledge or consent.
D) There's no defined way out. The ordinance tells you how to establish an overlay, but it doesn't tell you how to get out of one, should at some future date 55% of owners decide that it wasn't such a good idea after all.
I can't wait to see what happens over the next 10 years between the overlay and non-overlay neighborhoods. Let the grand experiment begin!
The Unprofessional County
I am not new to civic politics, but I am relatively new to
(For my observations of the final vote for implementing the Residential Infill Overlay District (RIOD), please see The Overlay Ordinance Vote)
I have come to the opinion that the seeming mystery and secrecy of what goes on is by design. Unpublicized meetings and last-minute drafts that change with the weather only further ensconce this impression. The local media is of little use in keeping us up as to what is really going on here. The only way that we seem to find out about things is because of a handful of dedicated professionals and activists who have made it their mission to disseminate such information. If we ever do see the details of anything that is being discussed or voted on, it’s usually in the nature of a 2nd or 3rd generation fax or an e-mail from someone wanting my support. This is just wrong.
In this day of age with the inexpensive communications technology available, there is absolutely no excuse for this. I think it’s just plain pathetic that in my daily life, I can’t seem to avoid up-to-the-minute details as to what Paris Hilton is up to, but finding out what is happening within my local government practically requires a court order.
Meeting times and agendas should be published on the Internet weeks in advance. Also, all relevant documents, especially those being discussed and voted on should be available on line well in advance of the scheduled meeting. And minutes of each meeting should be posted within 48 hours afterwards. Perhaps then even the commissioners themselves would have access to these seemingly important documents before the meeting starts. (In some meetings, some have actually said that they haven’t) I also think that archived video of all meetings should be available as well. The inability or unwillingness of the county to do this only breeds suspicion and contempt, reinforcing the impression that county policy is driven by and for special interests, be they real estate developers or neighborhood activists.
During the next election cycle, I will only be supporting candidates who pledge to take these simple steps to allow more sunlight into county proceedings. Nothing sanitizes as effectively as sunlight.
Addendum 10/18/06: Property Tax Relief
The Georgia General Assembly has passed House Bill 595,
which places a referendum on the November 7th ballot that would
freeze the assessed value of you home for
Addendum 05/31/07: Tactics, Lies and Misconceptions made by the Overlay Advocates
It’s come to my attention that activists from some of the original overlay neighborhoods have been helping like-minded residents of other neighborhoods to establish overlays, with the implicit assistance of the county government. They modus operandi appears to be swift movement in securing signatures from like-minded property owners and then spreading disinformation to others until they obtain the 55% required to go before the Board of Commissioners. The goal is to get the petition before the BOC before the remaining property owners realize what is happening. Another tactic they are using is a form of gerrymandering, where they engineer what is defined as a "neighborhood" in such a way that they are assured of maintaining the required 55% of petitioning homeowners, even after initial attempts at getting 55% fails. This is easily doable, since the ordinance and the county deliberately left the definition of exactly what defines a "neighborhood" wide open for liberal interpretation. (At least 20 lots with a "rational, defined boundary") All that is required is to eliminate the section or street of a neighborhood where the overwhelming majority of owners are against the overlay, and replace them with sections or streets where the resistance is less organized. (If there is a single street where nearly all of the owners are against it, they will happily exclude that single street because doing so will dilute the "against" votes for the rest of the neighborhood) Following are some of the ill-founded arguments that they are using:
Misrepresenting existing law and protections as unique to an Residential Infill Overlay District (RIOD)
argue that under the RIOD ordinance, newly
constructed homes front door thresholds cannot be more than 2-feet higher than
the previous home on that lot. Although true, it’s completely irrelevant. Under
the changes that were made county-wide in 2006, the same applies to all Infill
in DeKalb. It is not a limitation unique to Overlay Districts. argue that an RIOD protects homeowners, creeks and ponds
from drainage problems. The fact is that it does so no more than the vast amount
of existing county, state, and federal law. (DeKalb County Code, Chapter
7.31.2(j)) No construction in DeKalb, RIOD or not, should adversely affect
drainage on other properties. In fact, under the "Quality of Life"
addition to the code in 2005, developers are required to submit to the county a
site plan that documents the measures to be taken to ensure that any runoff due
to changes in the landscape does not adversely affect neighboring properties. That this has been a problem in DeKalb is only
because of careless builders and lax enforcement by the county. I assure you,
that is no longer the case as due to federal and state pressure, county
inspectors now take drainage issues very seriously. (I am also Georgia Soil and
Water Conservation Commission certified)
In fact, I’d argue that due to the often haphazard approach that developers used 40+ years ago when originally laying out many of our neighborhoods, Infill offers an opportunity to improve drainage. Regardless, any construction activity, Infill or not, should not adversely affect drainage on neighboring properties.
Perpetuating the value myth
Advocates argue that an Overlay helps your property appreciate more than for its “knock down” value. (I’ve already addressed this in detail above) My argument is that under a RIOD, although your “structure” might conceivably (but not necessarily) be worth more, the utility of the land on which it sits will be worth far less. And in a desirable urban area such as DeKalb, it’s likely that well over half of the total value of your property is in the land, and not your actual house. So whatever the increase there may be in the value of your structure will be more than offset by stagnation or reduction in value of your land. So even if the RIOD advocates are correct and your house becomes is worth 10% more, it really doesn't matter because the value of your land may now be worth more than %10 less.
The "Character of the Neighborhood"
Advocates argue that an RIOD preserves the character of your neighborhood. It might, at least in the short term. As for the long-term, it’s up to you to decide if that is a good or bad thing.
Speaking of the "Character of the Neighborhood", here's another fact that the RIOD advocates won't tell you about: Almost all new Infill homes are purchased by people who plan on living in them. Infill developers tend to target the less kempt properties that are more likely to be or become rental property and replace them with owner-occupied homes. These are people who are investing greatly in your neighborhood, vs. people who tend to be more transient in nature, and do not have the vested interest that you and your owner-neighbors do. The changing ratio of "owner occupied" to "rental" property in a given neighborhood will have a far greater effect on your overall property value and the "Character of the Neighborhood" than the slope of your neighbor's roof.
An RIOD does not “prohibit” tear-downs, but…
Advocates argue that an RIOD does not prohibit teardowns. (That almost seems contradictory to the last statement) What it does do is make Infill less attractive to developers, or, might possibly push more daring developers towards architectural styles that technically fit within the RIOD limitations, but certainly will not be in the “character of your neighborhood”. In the near future, I hope to document some interesting architectural styles that conform to RIOD standards, and see if people feel any better about those than the styles they originally sought to outlaw.
An RIOD will not raise your property taxes, perhaps
Overlay advocates argue that an RIOD will not raise your property taxes. If my worst-case scenario plays out, they may be right about that one. But that is certainly contradictory to the argument that they also make that an RIOD will be raising your property values more than Infill will. They just can’t have this one both ways.
Where is this “Data”?
Overlay advocates still argue that “the data indicates that… as the volume of infill increases on a particular street, the resale value of neighboring homes decreases”. I’d love to see that “data” here in DeKalb, as my personal observations have been 100% the opposite. (In my neighborhood, I’ve seen bidding wars for Infill properties)
Apparently there are representatives of neighborhoods that have established overlays proclaiming that since doing so, “prices have appreciated substantially”. This is not credible; Not that “prices have appreciated substantially”, but that anyone could seriously make such a claim after only a few months. As I said above, the effect of an overlay on the long-term “character” of a neighborhood and property values will take 5 to 10 years to manifest. Nobody can say for sure because there is no data yet, and there will not likely be any for quite some time to come. Anyone who says that overlays have increased their prices at this point cannot be taken seriously.
What motivates these people?
It's easy enough to understand the motivation of people who want to establish Overlays for their own neighborhoods. But what is not clear is why many of these "activists" seem to go to such effort to get to Overlays established in neighborhoods that are not their own. What is in it for them? Could it be that they fear that if the majority of DeKalb's neighborhoods remain outside Overlays that their neighborhoods may get left behind? Or is it some need to validate their personal agendas by seeing to it that others follow them as well? If anyone has any insight into this, do drop me a note and let me know.
Correction 07/22/07: The 2-Foot Threshold
I had previously stated that "Advocates argue that under the RIOD ordinance, newly constructed homes front door thresholds cannot be more than 2-feet higher than the previous home on that lot. Although true, it’s completely irrelevant. Under the changes that were made county-wide in 2006, the same applies to all Infill in DeKalb. It is not a limitation unique to Overlay Districts." This is not necessarily true. The "2-foot threshold" limitation for all county Infill was included in the November 18th, 2005 ZBA draft of the "Quality of Life" Initiative ordinance (the one listed as the "latest" on the Infill Task Force Web Site) but was removed from the final draft. I apologize for the error.
New 07/23/07: How to Resist a Overlay in your Neighborhood
New 10/17/08: RIOD Overturned - You can fight city hall, and even win.
There has been a major victory against the county regarding the establishment of a RIOD in DeKalb County. In September 2006, a RIOD was established for Riderwood Estates, using many of the tactics listed above. A lawsuit was soon filed by Bernard Knight, a former resident of Riderwood, representing several residents. The basis of the lawsuit was that the County had failed to follow the letter of the poorly written law, and that members of the planning commission had actively advised the RIOD applicants while denying any assistance to those resisting the overlay. On September 14th, the Superior Court of DeKalb issued a summary judgment that the Riderwood RIOD had "no legal existence".
This case proves that RIODs can be successfully resisted, and that the court will not tolerate the shortcuts that the RIOD advocates and the county have been taking around their own law. Also, it highlights the importance the importance of documenting everything that happens once you find that there are attempts to establish an RIOD in your neighborhood, especially in regards to contact with county officials. Kudos to Bernard Knight for following through and making this case happen.
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