By Maggie Lee
Atlanta’s in an affordable housing “crisis,” it’s got a “shortage,” the situation is bad, whoever you ask. But two people talking about “affordable housing” might not mean the same thing.
Alma Lott has says she has lived in Vine City for 20-something years, and that she sees the crisis. She came to Atlanta City Council last Monday and told them people are getting priced out of their homes, that she’s seeing children sleeping in bus shelters, families sleeping in the park, an elderly man sleeping in a van in a parking lot.
“We need to know, what does ‘affordable’ building mean to us … When the majority of people in Vine City or English Avenue are at $27,000 to $30,000? This is shameful,” she said.
What’s “low” on the income ladder in metro Atlanta is pretty high in dollars. Half of metro Atlanta’s households make less than about $74,800.
A family’s spot on the bottom half of the income ladder defines what “affordable” housing is for them. That income threshold is calculated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it gets updated from time to time.
So right now, for example, a household of four making $37,400 is at 50 percent of the “area median income” — often abbreviated as “50 percent AMI.” That family’s income is half of the halfway point income.
That family would need to find housing that costs about $935 per month or less for it to be “affordable” for them. That’s a common rule of thumb based on federal rules — that housing should cost no more than 30 percent of income.
Family size matters. When calculating eligibility for things like rental assistance, a low-income family of eight has a higher limit than a low-income family of one, for example. (See HUD’s detailed chart here.)
A single person at 80 percent of AMI has an income of $41,900. That technically qualifies as low-income.
“People right out of college make that,” said Georgia State University Professor Daniel Immergluck, who’s been studying housing for more than two decades.
“That’s not what people want, that’s not what people mean by affordable housing,” he said.
“We really don’t have a housing shortage for people making 80 percent of AMI. The housing shortage is below that,” he said.
Atlanta has set some requirements on new developments and affordability quotas.
Developers who build new apartment buildings near the BeltLine or Mercedes-Benz Stadium have to price some units “affordably,” or pay a fee to get out of the requirement adopted in late 2017. The affordable housing can be 10 percent of units for households at 60 percent AMI ($44,880 for a family of four) or 15 percent of units for households at 80 percent AMI ($59,850 for a family of four.)
Invest Atlanta, the city’s development agency, extracts affordable housing from developers that seek incentives like tax breaks.
For example, a new, 22-story, 345-unit apartment planned for 161 Peachtree Center will get tax breaks worth $5.65 million over 10 years, as well as a $9 million grant. Its affordable housing pledge is 70 units at 80 percent AMI, which will expire after 15 years.
For example, a two-bedroom “workforce rent” unit in the building would come to $1,347 per month. The sticker price is $3,108. (See the entire table of market versus workforce rent for this project.)
There are also folks who build affordable housing not for profit but as a mission. Like, say, the Quest Community Development Organization. One of their buildings under development flips the ratio — only 10 percent of units will be set at market rate. Twenty percent will be priced at 30 percent AMI; the rest will be priced for 60 percent of AMI.
Plenty of people ask why affordability is based on an AMI for all of metro Atlanta. That’s an area with 24 counties. Putting the likes of north Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and Bankhead on the same ladder means it’s a long ladder with a high midpoint.
Immergluck said the regional calculation isn’t perfect but has advantages — it moves slowly, it’s fairly predictable. It won’t jump if a neighborhood gentrifies.
But “affordability” can still be set differently in low-income neighborhoods. “Don’t change the metric, change the level. Meaning, do 30 percent AMI,” he said.
He also said that spending 30 percent of income on housing may be a fine rule of thumb at higher incomes but squeezes people who make very little.
“When you make $10,000 per year, 70 percent of $10,000 is not enough to live on,” he said.
Brandon Riddick-Seals, the new interim leader of Atlanta’s housing authority, said at a recent public forum on equity, that the tools and dollars his agency can use are based on AMI, which is set by the federal government.
So, that’s not really a rule any one city can change. Though he did say his agency is working on getting down to a zip code-based analysis.
That means the agency would have numbers at hand about incomes around the land it owns and will be developing.
He described part of the agency’s job as finding the dollars to help “mixed” developments work: mixed-income, mixed-financing and mixed-use.
“We’re really taking a fresh look at how do we create that,” he said.
Still, back to Alma Lott’s point — what’s “affordable” for folks making $27,000 to $30,000?
Technically, rent of $623 to $750 per month.
Other definitions of “affordable housing” are much higher — and some are lower.
The takeaway? When someone is talking about “affordable” housing, they could be talking about a wide range of prices.
This story has been updated with information about a grant from Invest Atlanta to the 161 Peachtree Center project and the 15-year lifespan of below-market-rate apartment prices.