MARIETTA — A weeks-long debate over the concentration of Habitat for Humanity homes in south Cobb came to a sort of resolution last week, as the Board of Commissioners approved the nonprofit’s latest proposal near Six Flags Over Georgia.
Habitat can now move ahead with the construction of 12 homes it says will be available to working-class families in the area.
In a rare split for zoning cases, however, Chairwoman Lisa Cupid was the sole vote against the proposal, saying she was “extremely concerned” about the consequences of Habitat’s pattern of development in the area.
As all parties have said, the issue of Habitat’s preference for south Cobb isn’t new, but it reared its head again two weeks ago in a Planning Commission meeting. Some residents questioned why, according to Habitat’s numbers, some 274 of its 383 homes built in Cobb County are in south Cobb’s District 4.
Denny Wilson lives in the area and was present at both meetings, saying it was her understanding Habitat could build on the Hillcrest Drive property either way. Rezoning the property would simply increase by one the number of homes allowed on the property.
In light of that, Wilson asked Commissioner Monique Sheffield, who represents the area, to place a number of stipulations on the new development to better match the surrounding area. Those included mandating at least half of the homes be two-story structures and have brick or stone facades.
“If they’re going to come in again … they need to come in with a better design. That’s all we’re saying, and if they can come in with that design, then we can bless them,” Wilson added.
Added Allen Rodi, a Smyrna Realtor, “To keep focusing on one part of the county … feels a lot like some of the fair housing violations. While picking an area may not be a protected class, it certainly feels wrong in some respects.”
Jessica Gill, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Northwest Metro Atlanta, along with her representative Rob Hosack, countered that this project would be different from past Habitat ventures.
Unlike other developments, the new Hillcrest community would be governed by a homeowners’ association, collecting fees for upkeep costs of a community garden and dog park. Restrictions would be placed on homeowners “to ensure long term maintenance and quality of homes” and promote curb appeal.
In the intervening two weeks between the hearings, Habitat had also pushed back on the narrative that its communities suffer from exceptionally high foreclosure rates and drag down surrounding property values, arguing its own data says otherwise. It instead called on the Board of Commissioners to “make affordable housing a priority” by supporting homes which could go to teachers, firefighters, and police officers.
After posing a series of questions to Gill, Hosack, and county staff, Sheffield began by saying the number of existing homes in the area was “quite astounding.” She then, however, moved to approve the development — but with a number of conditions.
Among those were a demand that the homes should be at least 1,800 square feet, Habitat should buy back any homes in the community which are foreclosed on in the first seven years after construction, as well as the design criteria enumerated by Wilson. Wilson and Rodi could be seen quietly celebrating as Sheffield read the stipulations; Gill, meanwhile, shook her head.
‘I would be highly disappointed’
Cupid, however, was deeply conflicted. She feared the prevalence of subsidized housing — not just Habitat homes — in the Hillcrest area led to circumstances where the average income in the area was too low to promote business investment. Spreading out affordable housing leads to a healthy mix, she said; concentrating it leads to a community that can’t support itself economically.
“We are limiting the persons that move into those communities from experiencing what I would perceive are the complete elements of community. Your neighborhood gas station shouldn’t be your grocery store,” she said.
“If I was in the shoes of a resident in that area, I would be highly disappointed in this county for doing this again … I’m torn, commissioner,” Cupid added. “I want to support you but I just — I can’t. I can’t.”
West Cobb’s Keli Gambrill said she understood Cupid’s objections, but offered a counterpoint: given the property will be developed either way, wouldn’t it be better to approve the rezoning, and thereby be able to place some controls on what gets built?
It didn’t change Cupid’s mind, and the vote carried 4-1. Wilson said afterward she was “very happy with the stipulations. I’m very happy with what they did.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what will become of the development. Gill promptly left the meeting room after the vote, but has said before that keeping the houses to small, single-story footprints helped to keep costs down and Habitat’s mission viable.