ROSWELL, Ga. — A group called Roswell Renters is taking the city to task for what it claims is a long-term effort of discrimination against the lower middle class and minorities in housing options.
Sandra Sidhom, a former Roswell mayoral candidate now living in Alpharetta, says she thinks the City Council’s progression in recent years to limit high-density housing is leading to racial and economic segregation within the city. Roswell Renters, she said, has about 25 members and has no officers currently.
Sidhom’s drive comes in the wake of a July 13 City Council vote that placed added restrictions on high-density housing within certain commercially zoned areas of the Holcomb Bridge Road/ Ga. 400 character area.
Councilman Matt Judy opposed the measure, saying the new rules take away opportunities for developers to provide the right type of housing in areas where it is needed.
Affordable housing in north Metro Atlanta has been an issue for years. The average cost of buying or renting in cities like Roswell, Alpharetta, Milton and Johns Creek can be as much as 40 percent higher than in nearby areas.
In general, higher density residential developments, like apartments, townhomes or small-lot homes, are cheaper to build, own and rent than a house occupying a large lot.
The dangers of herding groups
Sidhom said efforts to herd high-density developments to major thoroughfares and along bus routes in Roswell has led to a disparity and separation between classes and colors.
“When you’re talking about the character and integrity of the neighborhood, they’re really saying, ‘We don’t believe the people who would live in an apartment building match the character and integrity that we want with our neighbors,’” she said. “We’re not asking for Section 8 (government subsidized) housing. We’re asking for more multi-family, more density.”
By placing affordable housing along major thoroughfares, she said, you are guaranteeing conditions that are inherently less healthy than those found away from major traffic arteries, she said.
Sidhom said there is research showing how divisions in housing can create tensions that increase the likelihood of police shootings of a minority. Minorities, as a group, are less affluent than Whites, making them more likely to occupy a disproportionate number of low-cost housing units, she said.
One study led by the Boston University of Public Health, published in the December 2019 Journal of the National Medical Association, linked a disparity in access to housing to police shootings of Blacks.
“The level of racial residential segregation was significantly associated with the racial disparity in fatal police shooting rates,” the study found. “For each one standard deviation increase in the index of dissimilarity, the ratio of Black to White fatal police shooting rates increased by 44.4 percent.”
Blacks or African Americans make up just over 12 percent of Roswell’s population of 94,763, according to 2019 census data.
Sidhom said the same principles being fought for in the Black Lives Matter movement also trickle into fair housing practices.
“We talk about Black Lives Matter, we need to talk Black livelihoods matter, too,” she said. “We can do better.”
Creating walkable communities
Over the past four years, Roswell has enacted scores of revisions to its Unified Development Code, many dealing with high-density housing.
Councilman Mike Palermo, who introduced most of those changes, says the recent round of UDC updates were all designed to align Roswell’s zoning codes with those of neighboring Alpharetta.
“It was really a lot of the aspects of the big picture goal, how can we create walkable, mixed-use destinations?” he said. “Alpharetta had been very successful in creating walkable institution destinations. These recent updates were all focused on encouraging that same walkability.”
Palermo said Roswell has long had mixed-use zonings, but they weren’t being developed for real mixed-use. A lot of the time, he said, the buildings were just used for apartments.
“Nothing was taking away the opportunity to build or request apartments,” he said. “It was creating opportunity in certain areas for those apartments to be built in a mixed-use building.”
Much of Alpharetta’s zoning directed at its new City Center and other more recent developments has required some form of commercial use on the first floor of an apartment building.
Palermo said Roswell is one of the most accommodating cities in north Atlanta when it comes to apartments.
“Roswell has many more apartments than Alpharetta, and even with these recent code updates that just passed…Alpharetta still has a stricter zoning code in regard to apartments than Roswell,” Palermo said.
Data from the City of Roswell shows that, as of May 2019 – the most recent figures available – the city has 37,169 residences. Of that total, 58 percent are owner-occupied single-family or townhome dwellings. Rentals represent 42 percent of the total.
The most current data from the City of Alpharetta puts its mix of close to 25,000 households at 63.7 percent owner-occupied vs. 36.3 percent rentals. Alpharetta has a stated development goal of 68 percent owner-occupied residential dwellings.
Weighing community resources
Palermo said the progression of UDC changes over the past four years was to protect against overdevelopment in Roswell. He said the idea all along has been to promote sustainable development that can enhance the character of the city.
Another point, he said, is that there are infrastructure challenges, such as roads and traffic capacity, within the city’s residential areas that make high-density housing impractical.
Municipal planners often look at other factors that might strain existing services by adding large populations to otherwise sparsely inhabited neighborhoods. A rise in the number of school-age children could strain resources of local schools, for example.
“The goal of the UDC updates I brought forward in 2016 was to really protect the character of the suburban residential in existing neighborhoods and encourage the high-density housing be more in walkable areas,” he said. “[That’s] where you could have those live-work-play areas.”
He said locating high-density housing near public transportation, businesses with jobs and entertainment venues encourages a more vibrant, commercial area.
He said he is not aware of any study on racial makeup of the city’s neighborhoods, and he not targeting a racial group. He said he’s certain Roswell has a higher minority population than Alpharetta.
“It definitely had nothing to do with race,” Palermo said. “It was purely based on density and aspects of traffic, greenspace and other things residents stated they desired… It’s very important to Roswell to make sure we have a very diverse community where everyone feels welcome.”