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Column: Affordable housing in need, but cost is on the rise
Shannon Casas
Shannon Casas

I sat one evening this past week on my front porch watching my boys and the neighbors play football in the front yard. A neighbor walked by with his dog. Another neighbor walked by with earbuds in and waved. The kids ran around yelling and tossing a bright blue Nerf football.

We live in a great school district. Our neighborhood is safe. It was also affordable, at least when we bought it.

When I look at today’s housing and rental market, I know I am privileged to be where I am. Much of that privilege is just luck — or at least it couldn’t have happened without some sheer luck.

We were looking for our first home about the time the market had crashed. We had some savings thanks to the gift of stable, supportive family — I had lived rent-free in my grandparents’ summer home in Suwanee and didn’t have student loans thanks to my parents. It wasn’t all luck. We were careful with our money. And while the timing worked out well, I also watched the market, and we made a decision to start house hunting.

But in the years after that, the market rebounded and I found myself repeatedly exclaiming that my mortgage for a three-bedroom house was so much less than the rent at the latest new one-bedroom apartment. I had started out at The Times making less than $12 an hour with my college degree. And we were able to afford a starter home at age 25.

Now, there are myriad factors that have driven up housing prices, including high demand and low supply. 

If I were just starting out now in this profession, I don’t know how I’d afford to live independently. And how do you save for a down payment on a house when you can barely afford rent? Some say young people now just like to rent. I don’t know about that. That’s not what I’ve heard from the actual young people I know.

I hate that younger members of my team are facing this market, and some leave journalism as they look to establish roots — buying a house and building a family. Meanwhile high rental rates in particular affect hiring new team members. All of this while we pay competitive rates for our industry. 

It seems many of the developments coming online in our community are catering to the wealthy — those willing to pay $1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment. While developers aim for young professionals, that doesn’t seem to include those starting out in professions like education, social work or journalism. Where will those young professionals live? What about those working lower wage jobs? Or seniors on fixed incomes? Students? 

They’re priced out of the rental market, but entering the housing market isn’t better. A Times reporter spoke with a local real estate expert this week who told us that in 2012 the median home price was about 2.5 times the median income. Now, it’s 5 or 6 times. So, let’s break that down. The median household income, 2016-2020 was $63,651. An affordable house would be about $160,000. The average sales price of a home in Hall County in 2021 was nearly $417,000, according to data compiled by Abernathy Cochran Real Estate Group.

Earlier that same day I watched my kids play in the yard of my home that I bought well below that average sale price, I gathered with a group of subscribers to discuss some of these housing issues, more specifically the changing face of midtown Gainesville.

The thoughts echoed in that group were, how can we serve all of the housing needs in our community, especially considering that some feel they are being pushed out of their own community by increasing prices they cannot afford?

As their home values increase, will they continue to be able to afford their increasing tax bill? Will rental rates continue climbing, leaving many unable to afford to live in the community where they were raised? Or will a rising tide lift all boats? 

It’s a complex issue with many facets and people affected. And to be fair, housing is needed at every price point in our community.

How should the city focus its efforts? What involvement should government have, if any, to make affordable housing a reality? I’d argue we must have that kind of housing. We shouldn’t simply ignore the issue, hoping only to draw wealthy residents. I believe our industries, and not just mine, need varying price points for their employees. 

And we can’t go to the new coffee place or the new burger place or the new shop on the square if they can’t hire employees. Those employees will need places to live. 

These housing issues aren’t isolated to Gainesville, with the still-lingering effects of the Great Recession and now supply chain issues creating an imbalance in supply and demand, according to some reporting that you can read soon in The Times. But with the rapid pace of growth here, we’re in the spotlight. And that spotlight feels like a coming train for some.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.