If we’re growing as fast as we can and it isn’t enough, have we had it with growth?
By Tom Baxter
Georgia’s state economist, Jeffrey Dorfman, capped off his annual presentation to the House-Senate Budget Committee last week with a brief discussion of a looming revenue challenge to the state. For longtime Metro Atlanta residents, it may come as a shock.
As fast as we thought we were growing, we haven’t been growing fast enough to fill all the jobs in the state’s growing economy. Or as Dorfman put it, “This economy is growing as fast as it can without more people.”
State revenues grew with the population in the ‘80s and ‘90s when half the fastest-growing counties in the country were in Georgia. Now, the University of Georgia professor said, the state is growing its workforce at less than 1 percent a year. After a run of big new manufacturing projects, the state finds itself scrambling to provide the workers to run them — and the housing for those workers to live in.
Dorfman’s comments are tied directly to Gov. Brian Kemp’s focus on this year’s buzzword, workforce housing. Kemp has proposed a $35.7 million Rural Workforce Housing Development Fund to create housing near some of the new plants being built around the state, and signaled his support for legislation that would make it harder for local governments to stop outside investors from buying up housing.
“When we talk about workforce housing, about affordable housing, we don’t mean just low-income housing, we mean where do the $150,000 to $200,000 starter homes go, for someone who’s making $50,000 a year?” Dorfman told legislators.
As much data as Dorfman has at his command, he had none to offer when the legislators probed him for information about how corporate investors are affecting housing in Georgia. The state doesn’t have the means and doesn’t collect information that could distinguish out-of-state investors from hometown landlords, or determine their impact on the local housing market.
“I’m with you in being nervous about it, but I just don’t have the data yet to definitively tell you either that we have a problem, or what the solution to the problem is,” Dorfman replied to Rep. Debra Bazemore when she asked him about the impact of corporate landlords on low-income, primarily African-American neighborhoods.
It was clear from the variety of legislators who questioned Dorfman that, whether he has the data to answer them or not, he touched on issues that affect a wide spectrum of voters.
Right now the discussions have to do with whether the state can overrule local zoning ordinances and whether a lack of housing for sale is hampering wealth creation for young families. But in several of the questions asked by legislators last week, you could also hear larger doubts emerging about the state’s energetic economic development program.
Rep. David Knight of Griffin alluded to the irony of the state striving to fill the needs of corporate interests, at the same time corporations are seeking to profit from the housing stock in Georgia communities. Rep. Lynn Smith of Newnan asked whether the state, in its relentless efforts to grow, isn’t creating more problems for local property owners. These are Republican lawmakers, and their public airing of such misgivings reflects something of a change in the atmosphere on both sides of the aisle. It is certainly not anti-growth, but it’s more “at what cost” growth.
In Dorfman’s opinion, Georgia is locked in competition with Texas, Florida and North and South Carolina, which have outpaced Georgia in attracting new workers over the past couple of decades.
“What I see as the easiest thing we can affect is that if there are young families with working adults in them that want to leave the snowbound, cold, decaying cities of the North and move someplace nice and sunny and warm, we need to figure out how to get them to move to Georgia, and not to Texas, Florida or the Carolinas,” Dorfman said.
There’s something very ‘90s about that image of industrial recruitment. The workers who move to rural Georgia to make electric cars and solar panels are much more likely to come from all over the place, like the people who are moving to Georgia now, than the Northern industrial workers of a generation ago. Some might even come from Georgia.