By Maggie Lee
From mountain to coast, state lawmakers are hearing that it’s a struggle for Georgians to afford a place to live. It seems like a chance for Democrats and Republicans, rural and urban, to get together on some policy.
Presenting a Georgia map to a state House study committee last month, Spencer Frye, the leader of Habitat for Humanity of Georgia’s Athens affiliate, pointed out that most rural counties were shaded dark orange.
That means “you have 50% or more of your income being spent on your housing. So if you make $2,000 a month, chances are you’re probably spending about a thousand just to live somewhere and you’ve got no money left over,” said Frye, who is also a Democrat state representative.
At another hearing a few weeks later, Cathy Williams, president and CEO of affordable housing developer Neighborworks Columbus, said that the average sale price of a home in Muscogee County is $138,000. More than half of Muscogee households couldn’t comfortably afford that, she said.
Tifton’s city manager told the hearing that his community isn’t immune to rising costs and land isn’t cheap in his five-mile-wide city.
“We have the country club, we have the bigger neighborhoods, but all the work that we’ve been doing is around affordability,” said Pete Pyrzenski.
In Atlanta, the pressure is such that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has pledged that she’ll get a billion dollars spent on affordable housing: half public money and half private.
“Affordable” housing can mean monthly costs as low as zero, for folks who are, say, transitioning out of homelessness. It could be a few hundred dollars a month for someone on a fixed income.
In metro Atlanta, it can also mean costs north of $1,200 per month. That pricier affordable housing is “workforce housing.” It’s below market rate, but the owner or renter still has to have a pretty good job to afford it.
But even a “pretty good job” won’t get you on the property ladder or a convenient apartment in some parts of the state.
City and county leaders want a diversity of housing to keep their communities vibrant.
In a county dominated by fancy homes, there’s no place for all the workers a community needs like teachers and cops, much less restaurant workers and home health aides.
And a county or city with mostly modest or crummy housing stock will struggle to cover services paid for by property taxes, such as schools.
Though there are public costs to it, public policy can drive down some of the things that go into the price of a home or apartment.
Jeff Rader is a central-west DeKalb County commissioner now, but by trade he’s a city planner.
“Tax credits, incentives to help us build, a rental assistance program might be helpful to bride the gap in local communities, if there’s a shortage that’s based solely on price and not the number of structures that are available. Rehab of housing,” he said, listing policy ideas to the state House hearing.
Rader also spoke up for density and “design standards.”
(To understand “design standards,” consider vinyl siding. One builder’s inexpensive cladding is another county commissioner’s fire hazard — or sloppy mess if it’s installed badly.)
Frye mentioned that Florida gives tax credits to people and companies for donating labor or cash to affordable housing.
Williams said one the most frustrating things she’d ever encountered was a year it took to get an official OK from the state historic preservation office on some antique mill housing her company rehabbed into affordable senior housing. She said that anything that could be done to cut through regulations would be great.
Last year, city of Atlanta lawmakers worked on affordability from the property tax side, setting up a vote on a higher homestead exemption.
Frank Norton Jr., chairman and CEO of the Norton real estate agency, told a state legislative budget hearing in September that Georgia will be short 430,000 housing units by 2020. That will mean more people moving into mom’s basement, or into a daughter’s guest room, even if they’d rather not.
“The lack of Georgia home inventory is like not having enough oil in your car and your gears slowly come to a grinding halt,” Norton said.
The gears of the economy, that is, if your would-be workers can’t find a place to live.
Seems like an issue of interest to any elected official standing on a pro-business platform, or a pro-worker one.
Meanwhile, the state House Study Committee on Workforce Housing is to come up with some recommendations in time for the legislative session that begins in January.