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What business leaders have to say about lack of affordable housing
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Ranger Manufacturing's Charlie Miller operates a cutting machine Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at the Airport Parkway business. Ranger is among several businesses competing for workers in a tight labor market and frustrated at the lack of local affordable housing for those workers. - photo by Scott Rogers

Charlie Miller wanted to swing the profits from selling his house in 2019 into a nifty down payment for a new house, but it’s been slow going so far for the Gainesville machine programmer.

He knew he would have to rent during the transition — and that’s been the problem.

“Places to rent are $1,200 (monthly), and they’re not even nice — nowhere nice to what I had,” Miller said. “I found a few places that are $700 to $800 that are doable, just until I get ready to buy again.”

Miller’s experience is more than just personal to him. He has become “the eyes and ears” for his boss, Mike McGraw, as he keeps track of the area housing market and what it means — and may mean — for his employees at Ranger Manufacturing off Airport Road near Queen City Parkway.

“What I’m definitely seeing is a one-person household trying to afford a place to stay is becoming almost impossible,” he said. “We saw a trailer home the other day that was not kept up very well — and I’m not against modular homes or trailers — that was like $1,100 or $1,200 a month.”

Area businesses are facing a double whammy: a growing business community competing for workers and not enough affordable housing near where people work.

“East Hall is where most of our employees live, and that’s really the last sector of affordable housing,” said McGraw, whose company has 17 workers.

A recent study of housing in Gainesville and Hall County has found many families are cost-burdened by their rent or their mortgage, few affordable options exist and there is a “missing middle,” or a shortage of housing for middle-income families.

The study, conducted by the Urban Land Institute in collaboration with the United Way of Hall County, found that 43.2% of Hall’s population is cost-burdened when it comes to housing. 

While the area has many job opportunities, job growth will bring more people to the area, straining existing housing resources, utilities and infrastructure, according to the report.

To avoid being cost-burdened, a household would need an annual income of $87,300 to afford the average selling price of a home. The median household income is $55,622, according to U.S. Census data.

That means that people in many professions cannot afford the average home price — including more than 10,700 workers in the food manufacturing industry with an annual average salary of $34,746, more than 12,600 workers in health care and social assistance with an average salary of $53,958, and deputy sheriffs and police officers with average salaries of $35,000 to $41,000.

Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development, said affordable housing “is always in the eyes of the beholder.”

“It’s different for someone who’s a health care professional making a six-figure income versus someone who’s in public safety or a teacher,” he said. “Geography (and land values) also plays a role in affordable housing.

“So, there’s not one solution, and there’s not one problem. It’s multifaceted.”

According to the chamber’s 2019 Wage & Benefit Report, incomes ranged from $28,000 for a simple machine operator to $244,000 for a company president/CEO.

The report shows a lot of jobs under $50,000, including $34,000 for a forklift operator and $46,000 for an administrative assistant.

“Our wages are at above market,” McGraw said.

Affordable housing to meet workforce needs is expected only to intensify.

In his annual economic presentation at Lanier Technical College on Tuesday, Jan. 28, Gainesville real estate executive Frank Norton Jr. cited SK Innovation, a Korean developer and manufacturer of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid electric vehicles, which has started building a $1.67 billion new electric vehicle battery factory in Commerce.    

The facility will generate 2,000 jobs by 2025, and those “employees must live somewhere.”

Also projected to come online over the next few years is the Georgia Ports Authority’s inland port off Ga. 365 in northeast Hall. While the port itself is expected to create only a handful of jobs, officials believe it may spur further industrial job creation in the area.

“Affordable housing is still an issue, but (through) creative solutions such as starter homes, zoning districts, tax subsidies for affordable rentals, modernization of industrialized housing codes and products, slowly but surely, the communities’ housing stocks are mirroring the demographic and labor profiles of the communities that attract these industries,” Norton’s report says.

Chamber President Kit Dunlap said the community needs affordable housing.
“But I don’t think we’ve identified yet what affordable housing is in our community,” she said. “I don’t think anybody has taken an inventory of what’s being built, what’s permitted and what’s in the works.”

Still, “affordable housing is on everybody’s mind across the U.S. because (businesses) can’t find workers and whatever else,” said Dunlap.

Norton is pushing some housing he hopes will attract workers, including newly finished New Holland Studios in Gainesville, with studio units renting at $800 and other units renting up to $1,400. 

Also, construction is underway on an 84-unit affordable housing apartment complex

off Atlanta Highway/Ga. 13 in Oakwood. For most units, potential renters will have to meet certain income restrictions to be able to lease at the complex. No such restrictions will apply to 13 units.

Rents at this point are expected to run between $475 and $855, not including utilities.

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Construction crews build Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, on an 84-unit affordable housing apartment complex off Atlanta Highway across from Christ Place Church in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers

Still, there’s a lack of such housing overall, especially for the large employers.

“It’s not a minor issue. It’s a major issue,” said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms poultry company, which has 4,500 employees. “Our people who work at the chicken plants, they have to (live in) mobile homes and doublewides, and live three or four in an apartment. It’s a real problem, not just in Hall, but in Habersham County.”

He believes “bigger complexes of rental units” may be a solution.

“You’d have plenty of renters, that’s for sure,” Hensley said.

Phil Sutton, vice president of administration for Kubota Manufacturing of America, said a year or so ago, when the Georgia Department of Community Affairs board toured its newest plant off Ga. 365 in northeast Hall, he used the opportunity to talk about housing.

He said he told the board to remember that, “as we grow, it’s important we have the foundation and framework for people who work in this area to have a place to live in this area.”

“We need to look at several things, including housing regulations that drive larger, more expensive homes,” Sutton said. “Developers have density needs to get a return on their investment, but a lot of times, (government) rules make that impossible.”

Government regulation of housing standards has been a hot issue in the legislature, with several area governments saying they’re opposed to state controls limiting the say the local governments have in how homes are built in their jurisdiction.

For Sutton, whose company employs 1,700 people in Hall, the effects of a housing crunch are real.

“We have 30 students in work-based learning programs that would like to get a job when they get out of high school or they go to tech school and get a job,” Sutton said. “They would like to be able to afford a house. The more expensive the housing, the farther away they end up living. It’s a catch-22 for jobs.”

The report urges the business community to take the lead. 

It even goes as far as to say the panel involved in the study felt there was a general consensus in stakeholder interviews that “most top-level business leaders simply aren’t convinced that lack of affordable housing exists or presents significant problems.”

Dunlap, noting she wasn’t interviewed for the study, said, “We’ve taken part in (the issue). We’ve had lots of discussion on it, but I don’t see us taking the lead and saying, ‘This is going to be our No. 1 objective.’

“Our No. 1 objective is workforce development — and part of that is to encourage (affordable housing).”

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