Another Decatur Dollar Home Slated For Teardown

In 1980, Ricky Harris became a new Decatur homeowner. He paid $1 for a house on Ansley Street in South Decatur, an area that in 1975 became an “Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program” community.

Ansley Street former Urban Homesteading household. Photo by author, December 2011.

The program was designed to get foreclosed and abandoned homes out of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) inventory and back into private ownership. In the mid-1970s, HUD was Decatur’s largest property owner and manager due to the high number of foreclosed and distressed properties in South Decatur.

Like other urban homesteaders, Harris got low-interest loans to rehabilitate the property and bring it up to code. Harris and the other urban homesteaders have been credited with spurring investment in South Decatur that transformed the community from a streetcar suburb sliding towards blight into a tony Atlanta suburb.

Harris sold the property in 2001 for $165,000. The latest sale recorded in DeKalb County tax records show that it was sold in 2001 for $218,500. According to Zillow, a local builder proposes to build a 4-bedroom, 3-bath 2,813-square-foot home after tearing down the existing 873-square-foot home built in c. 1948. The new house will go on the market for $599,900.

According to the builder, the new home will be “historically inspired.” My question is: What’s wrong with “historically authentic?”

Proposed new house facade. Credit:

© 2011 D.S. Rotenstein

14 thoughts on “Another Decatur Dollar Home Slated For Teardown

    • A quick scan of the Zoning Board of Appeals agendas posted at the City’s Website showed that there were 10 meetings held in 2011. All of the agenda items were approved (some with conditions) at eight of the meetings; items were tabled for later review at two of the meetings; and, only one case appears to have been denied. I requested the agendas from 2005 through 2010 from Amanda Thompson a couple of months ago and have not yet gotten the agendas/meeting summaries.

  1. Redevelopment in established communities (infill) is an ongoing trend. Good, bad, right or wrong it will only happen where and within zoning ordinances guidelines. The chances are pretty good that the neighbor (green house) in the photo would prefer a “comp” of $500,000 next door than $1? But then again, maybe not?

    • Actually, the neighbors in the smaller houses probably don’t want to see their property taxes rise and their own property values diminished because of the new McMansions. And yes, any construction project that takes a lot from a 873 SF home to a 2,814 SF home plus garage is a McMansion. Decatur’s Zoning Board of Appeals has a reputation as a rubber stamp for builders and the infill construction standards adopted in 2005 do little to prevent the demolition of small, older houses. This practice is destroying the historic fabric of the community; destroying the neighborhood’s ethnic, economic, and age diversity; and, adversely affecting the environment by wasting carbon and adding impervious surfaces. But yes, it is all legal and apparently welcomed by the community.

      • Decatur has a silent policy of maintaining valuations of exiting houses and only raising taxes when a new house is built or radically re-modeled. It’s one of the things the City does to keep diversity, and only creates a problem when someone takes their appeal all the way to a board meeting. It’s the reason why there’s no shortage of lots in OAK that are valued @ $35K when they would sell in an instant for $190K.

        And I can arrange for you a mile long queue of people (with me in the front) who will let you know, with first hand accounts, that the last thing Amanda, or anyone else in the development department, does is rubber-stamp anything.

        As much as OAKs development horrifies you, go drive around in any OTP community, or actual McMansionville, to see what the CoD building department has saved us from.

        • EJ,

          I didn’t say it was a rubber stamp; other folks have said it. The variance approvals do tend to support that position, though. As for taxes, how many interviews have you done with elderly residents who emotionally describe being forced to move from Decatur because they can no longer afford the taxes? How many elderly folks have you spoken with who describe opportunistic builders trying to get the older residents to sell their property? The census data and empirical evidence show that Decatur’s becoming less diverse, not more. Teardowns and mansionization are part of the mix leading to the loss in diversity.

          • I haven’t interviewed anyone, but as a real-estate hobbyist, I know that there is a HUGE difference in the appraisal values from new development to existing. I live on a street where the dirt two doors down from me is valued at 20% of what it could be sold for, five doors from a lot valued @ 13% of what it would sell for, and twelve doors from a double lot valued @ 7% of what I know was offered and refused.

            I have no doubt that people feel the pressure of CoD taxes, they are ridiculous, and it completely sucks that people have to move because they can no longer afford to pay them. That being said, the CoD has gone out of their way to not raise older existing home appraisals like has been done everywhere else in MetroATL. I’d be perfectly happy to support a senior property tax exemption like the homestead exemption.

            And I don’t need to interview anyone to know how opportunistic developers try to get people to sell their lots. As the owner of a couple old existing lots, I’m on the front line of that barrage. But from my perspective, I’m incredibly grateful that in this economy where new building has ground to a halt and many builders are out of business, OAK is a magical little place where people want to move to.

            Although I too wonder about how OAK will change, I know that as a fairly recent arrival, I love the people who I’ve met here, 96% of which are living in a smaller, older houses with no intentions of either moving nor tearing down and starting over. The simple fact is that a well maintained, older, smaller 3/2 is priced way too high for a builder to buy as a teardown. The bulk of tear downs have been priced around $200K, with most of that reflecting land value. And although they may have had historical value, the simple economic reality is that they would have required far more work to restore than they would have been worth. The key to fending off an onslaught of tear downs is keeping older houses well maintained and updated, which is happening now in OAK more than it ever has. The MLK service project continues to help older homes push out of poaching zone.

            The Urban Homesteading program did exactly what it was supposed to, preserve and revitalize a dying community. And although our interpretations of ‘preserve’ may differ, the simple fact is that most of the pople involved in this discussion wouldn’t even have known OAK without it.

            If it makes you feel any better, had OAK not turned around, the houses being torn down today probably would have been gone already anyway do neglect and vandalization.

          • Actually, the key to maintaining Oakhurst’s character and to fending off teardowns would have been found in a different outcome to the 2007 historic district fight. The Urban Homesteading program was critical to creating the Oakhurst of today but you can’t romanticize “Oakhurst” into a place that it never was nor will it ever be. True, many of the pre-bust players are gone, but there are still McMansions rising throughout Oakhurst. Yes, they are not the OTP McMansions with gates and lions, but they are out of scale and not consistent with the architectural character that makes Oakhurst the “magical” place about which you wrote. They are Decatur-scaled McMansions but they are still McMansions.

          • But since my time-machine is still in the shop and any chance of OAK becoming a historic district is now far less than zero, I think we need to focus on maintaining and improving existing smaller houses.

            And the magical OAK I fell in love with already had the McMansions and it’s bumped up 3/2s. OAK is self romanticizing every time I walk out my door, wether it’s name is two years made up or two hundred.

          • EJ, let me try to understand where you’re coming from. As far as I can tell, the administrative record regarding the 2007 historic district fight reflects that the nomination remains on the table. And, I’m wondering how Decaturites who have had the opportunity to spend the past five years watching the gentrification and disintegration of historic fabric, historic scale, and community character would respond to your comments in a transparent public debate.

            Let’s envision a historic district debate that does not include builders and real estate speculators with a financial interest in lax regulation and one that includes well-informed — not misinformed (lots of information does not necessarily mean “well-informed”) — stakeholders. I wasn’t here in 2007 but I’ve met lots of folks who were. I’ve also read more almost 40 years of historical records from South Decatur and the gentrification and loss of diversity we se occurring now is something residents feared would happen as early as the first half of the 1970s. Historic preservation was part of the discussion then and was embraced by many who did not want to see the community they fought to rebuild after 1960s white flight disintegrate. You probably would be surprised to hear folks who were among the community leaders in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s talk about the sequence of events, i.e., gentrification, they spurred. Whites and non-whites alike from that period have grave concerns about what is happening to the community as a result of what is perceived to be lax regulation of the city’s zoning code and the proliferation of teardowns and McMansions.

            Give the 2007 fight some distance where folks with some historical perspective can look at it after enough time has passed to see what became of South Decatur. Historians in 20 or 50 years from now will have the historical record captured in blogs, community newsletters, and government records and they will be able to compare what was said and written then with census and economic data that already show the community is becoming less diverse. Do you think they will write favorably about the folks who opposed designation in 2007? And what about the quality of the “historically inspired” McMansions being built to replace the “historically authentic” housing stock? Will they have the same life cycles as the older homes that were demolished to make way for their construction? Those might be some questions for folks to consider. Ask yourself, “What’s your longterm legacy going to be?”

          • Firstly, I’m certainly not denying that Decatur is becoming less diverse, as census data clearly shows that. I’m also in no position to comment on it’s impact since I haven’t been here that long. I can only tell you that I fell in love with OAK as it is today, not how it was. I also know a lot of people who have moved here in the last couple years who feel the same way. I also know a lot of people who love OAK as it is now and are trying to move here. People aren’t buying new houses here because of South Decatur’s history or past diversity, they’re buying here because they love the neighborhood as it is now. People are also moving here solely based on the CoD schools. Attempting to stop the influx of people I’ve just described would require derailing things that even long term Decaturites now enjoy.

            Although it may change the pace of gentrification, I’m also not sure that a historic district could stop it. A historic district would significantly change or halt the pace of complete tear-downs, but it wouldn’t change the pace of rehabs and bump ups/outs. Once a property has been significantly remodeled, it’s appraisal value changes significantly, which means gentrification continues along a different route. If you look just at what’s happened within the MAK district, it would actually suggest the start of a second level gentrification process, as two of the newest and most expensive houses ever built on this side of the tracks are in a historic district. A historic district would also impact rental properties. If you’ve noticed, there are no freshly rehab’ed rental properties in OAK. As a rental property owner, I know first hand that without the homestead exemption to mitigate CoD taxes, you have two choices: ride the property out until simple repairs can no longer keep up the building and then sell the property; or, ride the property out as long as you can, rehab it, and then quadruple the rent to cover the 300% tax increase. A historic district will make both repairs and rehabs even more costly for landlords, only accelerating the gentrification process after the temporary reprieve riding out the building.

            The historic district nomination is indeed still on the table, and Amanda and Regina would love to see it enacted, as would many other people. However, I doubt it’s ever going to happen for a number of reasons. As much as you would like to envision a debate without builders or investors, that isn’t ever going to happen because a significant percentage of the big players in the Oakhurst market already live in Oakhurst, with more on their way in. So unless you are going to exclude residents from having a say, builder and investor voices will indeed play a role in any debate. I also doubt you will garnish much support from any of the people whose homes/rehabs you feel are McMansions, or the people who no longer want to live in a tiny 2/2 and want to bump up|out. And with the growing number of non-traditional builds and the number of fully contemporary builds that will be established before the nomination is back in debate, there will be even less of a housing base upon which to establish a district of any consistent scope.

            But in order to understand what I think will be the primary reason for an initiative failure, you need to talk with people who have/are/or tried remodeling their properties. And although I’m primarily talking about individual home owners working on their private residences, you should also talk with some local contractors and builders. What they will all tell you is in stark, diametric contrast to what you paint as lax regulation. The CoD has the most stringent zoning and building regulations in GA. If you talk with with a contractor or builder new to Decatur, you will see the disbelief and shell shock of what the City requires of them compared to anything they have ever done anywhere else. When my architect and land planner, both of whom regularly work with and for the CoD, told my builder what would be required, my builder honestly thought they were playing an April fools joke on him. As a simple example of the City’s strictness, Decatur is the only city in the country to count loose aggregate stone patios as impervious surfaces that count in lot coverage calculations.

            You can find plenty of homeowners who have attempted to make what they thought were insignificant changes upset with the seemingly ridiculous regulations imposed by the CoD zoning and building commission. People are already at the limit with CoD regulations. When people find out that someone wants to add a design revue process to the already arduous permitting process, there will be a small riot. Since 2007, the number of people doing work on their homes has increased significantly, and it amazes me how many people are aware of how stringent CoD is and have interacted with them in the permitting process. The CoD issued a record number of building permits in 2011, more than the previous two years combined. When those same people remember what they went through, and then read about the porch railing fiasco that the MAK imposed on a homeowner, they are never going to be convinced that a historic district is in their best interest. Ironically, Amanda and Regina have themselves created the environment that will defeat any historic district initiative.

            As to how historians will write about all of this, I’m a pretty lousy prognosticator, so I have no idea. Whether or not the new builds will last as long will depend upon what it always has, build quality and regular maintenance. It’s not a coincidence that the bulk of the historically authentic housing was perfectly fine until 1970. And I know of two modern builds in OAK that will be around well after all the historically authentic housing has dry rotted back into the soil.

            “What’s your longterm legacy going to be?” – My house is going to be the one that in 120 years a historic preservation committee will be fighting to preserve as historically authentic housing, the first fully contemporary house in South Decatur, and first 100% energy independent, carbon neutral residential build on the East Coast.

  2. I would not say that this type of development is welcomed by the community. The City of Decatur has admitted that at least half the members of the Oakhurst Community wanted to stop this type of development in 2007. Some changes were made to zoning to “slow down” this development in 2008 or 2009. Unfortunately, the changes were watered down because of pressure from individuals that profit from the current zoning.

    Even the most recent results of community input in the strategic planning indicates the entire City wants the McMansion develpment stopped. Again, it seems our current commissioners and City of Decatur staff are too afraid to make any real changes. I expect we will not have the success with this 10 year plan that we had in the last 10 year plan.

    With the current rezoning of schools in the City of Atlanta we are on the verge of even more McMansion building. Leaving the ones everyone calls the “fabric of the community” as lint.

  3. You know what bothers me about some of the comments in this thread. Everyone assumes that if you want to live in Decatur you have kids. Really? I thought on 25% of the residents of Decatur had kids. I think a historic district is a good idea. It has been proven across the country to help retain a diversity of home sizes and prices and helps small towns such as Decatur assist the elderly through lower taxes. I know that statement will make people bring up paint colors and Charleston, SC and their restrictive historic district code. But, really look at the MAK district. It looks great. There have only been 5 instances where homeowners had a public issue with the historic preservation commission. Is it really that bad?

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