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Group works to preserve affordable housing options for poor families
Karen Brackett and daughter Chloe, 4, wait outside the Green Hunter Homes community center in April for a meeting with Georgia Community Affairs officials. Many residents of the subsidized apartment community are still looking for new living arrangements after receiving vouchers that will allow them to get subsidized housing elsewhere.

Karen Brackett and her 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, have finally moved out of the Atlanta Street public housing complex in Gainesville.

After the first night in her new home, Brackett said she felt as rested as any time she could remember since the move began.

Mother and daughter, with a voucher in hand that would subsidize their next home, settled in Athens after searching fruitlessly for weeks to find a place locally.

Their journey has its origins in the affordable housing crunch that has squeezed the city’s supply and made available housing too costly for many middle- and low-income families.

In Gainesville, 65 percent of households rent, a ratio that is reversed statewide.

And rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Gainesville has risen 2.2 percent over the last year, according to Apartment List.

The shortage has prompted the Georgia Legal Services Program to launch a housing preservation project funded through a settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and Bank of America, which will run for two years.

“What we’re focusing on in the Gainesville region are larger systemic issues,” said Susan Reif, a housing specialist attorney with GLSP.

This includes collecting data on existing affordable units; monitoring redevelopments like Atlanta Street; and helping residents navigate changes in the market.

“We want to preserve as much affordable housing as we can,” Reif said.

The Gainesville Housing Authority has partnered with Marietta-based Walton Communities LLC to redevelop the 131-unit public housing complex on Atlanta Street built in the 1950s.

Redevelopment plans stem from the substandard conditions of the existing units.

Construction of some 265 new public, affordable and market-rate units over three phases could begin by 2017 with move-in dates in 2018.

Thirty-nine units will remain public housing, and about 20 percent overall will be priced at market rates.

“The mixture of public, low- to moderate-income, market-rate and senior housing within the proposed redevelopment site appears to be a good blend of housing opportunities for Gainesville,” said Matt Tate, Gainesville’s planning manager.

Last year, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs awarded $25.8 million in tax credits for developers to either build or rehabilitate 33 affordable rental housing properties throughout the state, including the first phase of Atlanta Street redevelopment.

The state touts the credit as “Georgia’s main tool to create and preserve affordable housing for households that need it most, including working families, veterans, people with special needs, seniors, teachers, nurses, firefighters and police.”

Residents began receiving vouchers in March that will allow them to get subsidized housing elsewhere, and all are likely to be relocated before the year ends.

For many families, relocating to a safer, more stable place to live is a blessing given the persistence of drugs and violent crime along Atlanta Street.

But the move has been trying.

“They all get a voucher, but whether they can successfully use it is another issue,” Reif said. “Gainesville has a tight housing market.”

For Brackett, the back-and-forth started when she was at first denied a place in Athens, the only home she could find that was covered by her $621 a month voucher.

So Brackett turned back to public housing.

About 15 families have already been transferred to other public housing units in the city.

Eventually, Brackett found a suitable place in Athens she could afford.

“We’re so happy here,” she said, adding that they were already planting a garden and Chloe had already made a new friend. “She’s adjusted really well.”

Making that true for every Atlanta Street resident is something Chad McCranie, GLSP staff attorney for the preservation project, is watching closely.

“We want people to understand what their rights are,” McCranie said, “and know how to navigate that process successfully.”

Beth Brown, executive director of the housing authority, said she is working with local landlords to accept housing vouchers, and the agency is helping pay for relocation costs and moving expenses.

“I’m not anticipating any real problems” with the 60 families still remaining at Atlanta Street, Brown said.

Across Hall County, there are just five section 8 properties that accept housing subsidies, each located in Gainesville.

“Most cities in the area don’t have more than a couple project-based section 8 properties,” McCranie said. “The only city in our area with more properties than Gainesville is Athens.”

And some of these may not last as redevelopment lurks. The section 8 contracts on several properties are set to expire in the coming years, and renewal is never guaranteed.

“The only other source of stable affordable housing for people at this level of poverty is public housing and section 8 vouchers, assuming people can find affordable places to rent with a voucher,” McCranie said. “So the fact that there are only a few per community means the loss of any one of them has a big impact.”

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