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Affordable housing proposals polarizing in Hall County
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Gainesville Planning Manager Matt Tate talks during a City Council meeting. A state committee is being formed to look into the lack of affordable housing in Georgia. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Proposed affordable housing developments across Hall County have drawn opposition from several corners.

It’s a dilemma playing out amid a housing crunch that has gripped the region.

One proposal in particular — a 240-unit complex off Pine Valley and White Sulphur roads in Gainesville — has been frowned upon by public officials.

City planning staff believes the proposal doesn’t jibe with Gainesville’s comprehensive plan calling for low-density housing in that area.

Officials must consider the impact every new development might have on the school system, traffic and public service demand.

And so that sentiment was echoed at the Gainesville City Council work session last week, as Planning Manager Matt Tate discussed the proposal.

“That’s a lot of density far out in the middle of nowhere,” Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said.

Wanda Creel, Gainesville City Schools superintendent, has said she believes the development “is not in the best interest of the community or school system.”

New Holland Core Knowledge Academy “would be the primary school to support children that would be housed in (the) multifamily housing,” Creel wrote in an email read aloud at the May 10 Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board meeting.

“New Holland is currently at capacity, as well as all our other schools.”

The proposal, which calls for a roundabout at Pine Valley and White Sulphur, near railroad tracks and close to Crescent Drive, is on the City Council’s voting meeting set for Tuesday.

Other proposals in South Hall have drawn criticism as well. And some developers seek federal tax credits to help with construction costs and keep rents down for low-income residents,

During his many years living in Flowery Branch, Ronald Sturgill has seen plenty of changes, and he believes the South Hall city is headed in the right direction.

But he had to put his foot down over a proposed affordable housing project planned for East Main Street.

“Flowery Branch has come a long way … but I don’t think this fits in with where (officials) are taking the city,” Sturgill said.

Concerns were raised by residents and city officials on a number of issues, including traffic, public safety and future upkeep of the 60-unit apartment complex.

“The multifamily thing, I think, scares people,” Councilman Joe Anglin said.

Not in my backyard, also known by its acronym NIMBY, is a phase sometimes used to describe the mentality of residents who oppose new development.

“In general, you experience NIMBYism in smaller, denser geographical areas, which happen to be usually within city limits,” Hall County Planning Director Srikanth Yamala said. “The key to tackle NIMBYism is for the applicant to reach out to the neighbors early on and incorporate their concerns as much as possible.”

That’s the tack developers like Mitchell Davenport often must take to garner support. Davenport  is principal of Clement & Co., the St. Simons Island-based company hoping to build the Flowery Branch complex.

He said he is proud to call himself a developer of affordable housing. The projects also feature a smaller percentage of units with rents set at market rates.

Seeing the look of someone getting out of substandard housing and into the “stability of safe, affordable and decent housing … really has a positive impact on your life,” Davenport said.

Flowery Branch ultimately voted Thursday night to OK the 60-unit apartment complex.

“I think it will be a great asset,” Councilwoman Mary Jones said.

Frank Norton Jr., president and CEO of The Norton Agency real estate firm in Gainesville, said some of the burst in activity may be related to “some census changes.”

But aside from potential demographic shifts, “maybe the biggest reason we’re having more apartment (proposals) is that we have the No. 1 job growth in Georgia,” Norton said.

“When we get the publicity of having (rapid job growth), where do the (residential) developers want to go?” he said.

And Norton believes government officials should help pave the way.

“We want all these good jobs, but if we’re not willing to provide (affordable) housing … that’s going to be a major stumbling block for industrial recruiting,” he said. “Where are these people going to live?”

Another proposal that has stirred public opposition is a project calling for 84 apartments off Atlanta Highway and Osborn Road.

Initially, Oakwood City Council rejected the proposal. But then, with two of the three dissenting members absent, the council later reversed its vote.

Councilwoman Sheri Millwood voted against the proposal at both meetings and objected to adding the item to the agenda for reconsideration.

Though tax credits are essential for some affordable housing projects to get off the ground, Norton is looking to boost the supply with market-based solutions, particularly in the single-family market.

Construction of a cottage home community off Enota Drive in Gainesville continues, with homes likely to sell for $150,000 to $175,000.

Norton said he also wants to build smaller homes in-town between 900 and 1,000 square feet that could sell for $90,000 to $100,000.

And he is considering creating an affordable housing investment fund through his company that would pool money to build quality homes on a consistent basis.

“I don’t mind putting my money where my mouth is,” Norton said. “You can’t have it both ways.”