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Dearth of affordable housing calls for comprehensive solution

By Guest Columnist KATHLEEN FARRELL, head of commercial real estate at SunTrust Banks, Inc.

Over the last decade, as millennials entered the workforce and delayed or indefinitely avoided buying a home, apartment complexes sprang up across Atlanta – as they did in many U.S. cities – to meet the growing demand for rental housing. Many of these new developments were built as luxury living experiences in order to command higher rents and meet the expectations of a younger clientele. The result was a robust supply of high-end units that have been absorbed by Atlanta’s strong job market, but a dearth of affordable, workforce housing.

Kathleen Farrell, edit

Kathleen Farrell

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) defines workforce housing as developments priced to serve households making between 60 and 120 percent of area median income. In Georgia, for example, median household income is $51,037. A household making 90 percent of AMI – the median of 60 and 120 – has income of $46,000.

In Atlanta, average rent for an apartment is $1,597 and consumes 41 percent of gross income for a household making $46,000. Add living expenses including electricity, transportation and child care to the equation, and basic necessities can consume the vast majority of a household’s paycheck.

Atlanta’s business and community leaders have been concerned about housing affordability for some time, but continued upward pressure on rental rates has rightfully brought renewed attention to this issue.

Real obstacles to increasing the supply of workforce housing exist, and they won’t be fixed by solutions that worked in the 1990s. In the past, land in Atlanta was relatively inexpensive, interest rates were low and construction costs were reasonable. Because of this environment, subsidies could be used to encourage developers to set a percentage of their units aside for households within a certain income range. As a result, mixed income properties flourished.

Today, the factors that previously worked in favor of workforce housing are now proving to be headwinds. Land prices across metro Atlanta have increased significantly, interest rates are trending upward and construction costs are higher, too.

alpharetta, affordable housing

Monthly rental prices start at $1,249 for a one-bedroom apartment with 824 square feet at Ascent at Windward, located at 118000 Masters Way, in Alpharetta. Only the rent, excluding utilities and other fees, would consume 33 percent of a household earning $46,000 a year. Credit: apartmentguide.com

Building farther out in the suburbs used to be a go-to solution, but lengthy commutes are less acceptable to today’s renters. Furthermore, burdening the breadwinners of middle-income households with longer commutes – even as traffic problems worsen in many places – is not a long-term solution. Suburban multifamily developments will continue to be needed, but affordable housing options near job centers – whether Downtown Atlanta, Midtown or Alpharetta – are also needed.

Housing affordability in Atlanta is a multifaceted problem that will require a multi-step solution. There are various tactics that can be effective if they are deployed where they make sense and can have the biggest impact.

  • Change density requirements. Local governments can change zoning requirements and allow more density near job centers. This addresses the high price of land by enabling developers to spread the cost over more units, which can ultimately bring down rental rates.
  • Explore inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning has both benefits and downsides, but it can be effective when implemented properly. Some financial support from the local municipality, such as tax credits, could be paired with inclusionary zoning ordinances to encourage more development. This solution should be considered. However, simply requiring developers to produce affordable units within a particular area won’t solve the issues of interest rate and construction cost.
  • Make the most of existing multifamily units. Atlanta has an abundance of older multifamily units that could be renovated to provide affordable housing. This option is significantly less expensive than ground-up construction and serves local communities by improving developments that might otherwise fall into disrepair.
  • amli, old fourth ward, affordable housing

    Monthly rental prices start at $1,450 for a studio apartment with 549 square feet at Amli Parkside, located at 660 Ralph McGill Blvd., in the Old Fourth Ward. Only the rent, excluding utilities and other fees, would consume 38 percent of a household earning $46,000 a year. Credit: amli.com

    Think creatively. High-density cities where affordability has been a challenge for decades – like New York City – have experimented with micro-apartments that offer very small living spaces in exchange for lower rental rates. More recently, co-living arrangements have increased in popularity and could serve as a model for cities like Atlanta that are looking to augment efforts to increase the supply of affordable rental options.

  • Encourage national fixes. The workforce housing supply problem is happening in cities across the U.S., not just Atlanta. Federal tax credits could be adjusted to raise the AMI ceiling for developments in certain neighborhoods. This would be especially effective in urban areas where families making even 120 percent of AMI struggle to find safe, affordable housing.

SunTrust is supportive of deploying capital toward solving the workforce housing problem, and we will continue to be an active participant in finding solutions that work. We believe that the best chance of real progress will be made when municipalities like Atlanta, developers, financial institutions and even the federal government work together to implement a range of solutions that make new developments more feasible on a broad geographic scale.

Helping those who struggle to find housing that fits their budget is vitally important for the health of our city and is worthy of our attention.


amli, arts center, affordable housing

Monthly rental prices start at $1,675 for a studio apartment with 650 square feet at Amli Arts Center, located at 1240 West Peachtree St., in Midtown. Only the rent, excluding utilities and other fees, would consume 44 percent of a household earning $46,000 a year. Credit: amli.com


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  1. Chris Johnston April 30, 2018 12:28 pm

    Or put the Atlanta Housing Authority back into the public housing business.Report

  2. Carla May 1, 2018 1:49 pm

    Atlanta needs more cottages, bungalows and accessory dwellings, NOT McMansions.Report

  3. Mandy Mahoney May 2, 2018 9:09 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece! It is very helpful to support a more robust dialogue on this important topic.Report

  4. Honest Man May 2, 2018 10:36 am

    Please stop it. Atlanta has plenty of affordable housing. There are more than 1,000 homes under $200k for sale right now. It’s still possible to find apartments under $1k/month. And if you are honest enough to say: “But people don’t want to live in those communities,” then talk about the need for the city to improve public safety.

    There are tens of thousands of people living in the suburbs right now who would like to live in the city, but they don’t because they want to live in safety and send their kids to decent schools (but can’t afford private schools). These people don’t qualify for subsidies or so-called affordable housing. They just have to fight traffic and deal wait until they can afford it.

    Some developers are seeing this demand and they are responding to it, but they are being forced to set aside subsidized housing stock. This continues the trend of housing for the very wealthy or the very poor. There are unintended consequences for every policy. This one is especially problematic.

    Some suburbanites are brave enough to take a chance on in-town communities. They are moving into neglected homes and revitalizing them. As these areas improve, these very people who took a chance and contributed to the growth of the city are attacked for “gentrification.”

    The best thing the city can do is to address a core function, public safety. Then allow the market to address housing. This will allow housing opportunities for people of all income levels to live in the city we love.Report

    1. Chris Johnston May 2, 2018 12:18 pm

      Well said!Report

  5. Bob May 4, 2018 7:23 pm

    If we want good intown workforce housing, we need a new partnership between MARTA, AHA, the city, and developers. MARTA wants TOD but all the designs have simply been traditional low density, parking space for all developments. Instead, put up high density condos or apartments and integrate them directly with MARTA. Integrate retail/restaurants as well. Not having to allocate parking will save space and money and making MARTA an attractive alternative to having a car will make people consider living at a MARTA station even if it costs a bit more (cars are expensive to purchase and operate).

    Imagine a high rise on the useless MLK lot that can be entered at street level or at the pedestrian bridge. Imagine all the empty space around the MARTA station (on their parcel) activated/alive. People working downtown would love to live there and walk or bike to work in good weather. People working in walking distance of any other MARTA station would love to live there. That’s a lot of people today and is growing every day. Nothing needs to be torn down (just a parking lot). This high rise could easily be more affordable than AMLI but, as new construction, it won’t be cheap. But it will add supply where it desperately needed (in town), keeping prices affordable, funding city services, and supporting MARTA.

    Right now, Atlanta is in a building boom so I would suggest delaying execution of such a plan. Make the plans, make the partnerships so that when the next downturn occurs the AHA and the city can help fund such a project with abundant labor and equipment employed at discount with designers and contractors who have nothing else to work on.Report


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