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A Different Perspective on Housing in Georgia

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Johanna McCrehan (L) and Katherine Moore (R)

By Georgia Conservancy Vice President of Programs and Sustainable Growth Director Katherine Moore, and Georgia Conservancy Urban Design Lead Johanna McCrehan

For 23 years, in more than 52 communities, Blueprints for Successful Communities has addressed the topic of housing options across the state of Georgia.

The Sustainable Growth Program of the Georgia Conservancy offers this community-based planning service to urban neighborhoods, transportation corridors, rural communities, and environmentally sensitive coastal areas. You might ask, why is housing a subject of interest to a conservation organization? The answer is simple; the type and location of housing stock have land use, economic, equity, and social justice ramifications for all Georgians and impacts the quality of our natural resources statewide.

Locations of Georgia Conservancy Blueprints for Successful Communities studios from 1995 to present.

The topic of housing has particular resonance because the availability of housing options is critical to our state’s economic resilience, and many city and county leaders have indicated to us that housing is a top concern, whether they are growing or contracting. We are helping to provide much-needed flexibility and options in housing affordability and diversity throughout Georgia: in the city of Atlanta, in the metro region, and our smaller towns across the state. Our Program recognizes that the increased demands on our land from a shifting population and the complexities of land development exacerbate the accumulation of barriers to housing options. Communities successfully combating a lack of housing diversity and affordability are engaged in a combination of the following:

  • Supplying a variety of housing types (forms and sizes) in our communities,
  • Providing a more significant opportunity for residents to attain affordable, safe homes in their community as needs and incomes change,
  • Prioritizing location variation – near services and amenities that are important or essential – to a given household’s needs and wants,
  • Expanding variety of housing price points and financing options (own/rent)

The Sustainable Growth Program works in our coastal counties to discern the impacts to housing from sea level rise, and in Brunswick specifically, to understand how housing types can shift with market demands. In smaller communities such as the Calumet Park neighborhood of LaGrange, formerly Calumet Village, we demonstrated how a few new housing units could create stability and commercial viability. In Lithonia, just east of Atlanta, we can see the profoundly positive effect the location of housing – nearer to jobs and transportation has on Main Streets.

When the Sustainable Growth team works with communities to address their housing needs, we perform studies to assess opportunities and challenges and make informed determinations about what goes where. The Program also educates and shares lessons from across the state – facilitating and helping communities learn from one another. Ultimately, the Sustainable Growth Program is assisting Georgia’s communities in leveraging their existing assets and determining what to save, what to reuse, where and how. With our great partners’ expertise in infill development, market analysis, and zoning, we advance the implementation of housing options.

Multi-unit residential building opportunities presented in the Georgia Conservancy’s 2018 Brunswick Blueprints studio.

Communities desiring a resilient future should be concerned about the quality and availability, as well as the accessibility and attainment of a person’s dwelling. Quality demands buildings of sound construction, sympathetic to community character, and featuring low maintenance costs. Availability asks, “Does the variety and volume of housing diversity exist in a community which will allow residents of all life stages to remain in an area as their needs and income change over time?” A community’s competitiveness and tax base suffer if folks must live elsewhere, are less upwardly mobile where they do live, and little, if anything, is left for local spending.

Our national pattern of housing has focused heavily on single-family homes. As a result, there is too little variety to meet current needs, changing lifestyles, and incomes over time. Recent graduates, hourly and salaried workers alike are not able to find housing to meet their needs because of a lack of options.

Accessibility refers to the relationship between housing, jobs, services, and amenities. Is there a nearby grocery store or a school and by what means can residents access these? Attainment addresses the basic shelter needs of all citizens. Georgians need to talk about a broad spectrum of people who are challenged by the cost of housing – roughly one-third of ALL Americans are cost-burdened, spending more than 50% of their monthly income on a place to live. (Source: AARP, Making Room: Housing for a Changing America, 2019) This percentage reflects the competing demands of essential food, shelter, clothing, and transportation, of which housing is an outsized factor.

Housing has been a significant influencer for our cities and towns to sprawl outward into undeveloped areas. Overall, we are lacking thoughtfulness and efficiency around what we are building, and where. The Sustainable Growth Program believes in reusing buildings, land, and infrastructure, which has economic positives while reducing the need for greenfield development.

Households per acre in Dallas, Georgia

For almost a quarter century, the Sustainable Growth Program of the Georgia Conservancy has looked at housing from a land stewardship perspective and talked about the topic statewide. The organization sees a clear link between housing and the environment. The Sustainable Growth Program recognizes that housing needs and impacts vary significantly across Georgia. Therefore, we advocate for a geographically based approach to solutions which begins with the adaptation, reuse, and expansion of existing housing stock in proximity to the necessities of life. Staff collaborates with diverse communities and professional partners to educate and shape policies around housing. Our collective goal is to allow for the development and implementation of a broad spectrum of feasible and flexible localized housing options.

For the reasons stated above, the Georgia Conservancy strongly opposes House Bill 302 / Senate Bill 172. We believe the bill has the potential to hinder, if not wholly remove, innovations at the local level necessary to address needs or leverage assets related to natural resources, housing, revitalization, or other land use conditions.

Georgia Power is also working statewide to address the availability of affordable housing for Georgia’s talented workforce and how that impacts all industries in our state. The Georgia Conservancy’s Sustainable Growth Program was invited to speak at the Georgia Housing Conversation, hosted by Georgia Power on March 15 at the Georgia Aquarium. Together, our perspectives will advance housing opportunities for all Georgians.

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