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Hall County expanding program to rehab vacant homes, blighted properties
It marks change from focus on foreclosures
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Hall County officials are expanding the target area of a federally funded housing rehabilitation program to increase the supply of affordable homes for low-income families in unincorporated communities, including in the northern and western parts of the county.

The move comes as local government, business and nonprofit leaders acknowledge the deteriorating conditions of homes in the area and rising costs for renters and homeowners, which presents public safety, educational and economic consequences.

For example, about 1 in 4 homeowners in Hall County are cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their household income toward housing. And nearly half of all renters across the county are cost-burdened.

The numbers are even worse within the Gainesville city limits, where nearly 42 percent of the city’s current housing stock was constructed prior to 1980, leaving many families living in substandard conditions, according to an analysis submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since 2009, 62 foreclosed homes in Hall County have been purchased, renovated and sold within the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, created in 2008 to counter a rash of foreclosures as the housing market slumped in the midst of the Great Recession.

A lease-purchase is being worked out on another home, and a remaining 12 homes the county has bought “are in the process of being rehabbed” for future sales, according to Jessica Robinson, Hall County grants manager.

But as the real estate market recovers, local officials want to address vacant and abandoned properties throughout the county rather than simply foreclosed homes.

Expansion of the program will allow for blighted homes to be demolished and rebuilt, and also will allow the county to establish a land bank to acquire, manage and rehabilitate such properties for sale or other use.

Land banks, which are a semi-governmental authorities that manage abandoned and foreclosed properties, have become more common in cities and counties in recent years.

They can wield enormous influence.

However, county officials said they are not likely to include multi-family development or rentals in the program expansion.

“This change will not only increase the supply of affordable housing but increase the value of surrounding properties,” said Chad McCranie, staff attorney in the Housing Preservation Project with the Gainesville branch of the Georgia Legal Services Program. “Vacant and abandoned properties have a documented negative effect on the value of neighboring properties.”

A focus on redeveloping blighted properties that private investors and developers have no interest in is important for several reasons, government officials and nonprofit leaders said.

First, if the $900,000 remaining in the program is not spent, some other community will get it, according to officials from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

And that could have consequences for public safety and public health in Hall County as blighted properties are associated with increases in crime and medical emergencies, McCranie said.

But increasing the affordable housing stock helps create and sustain jobs, increases the tax base and generates new consumer spending, he added.

Ann Nixon, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, said her organization has partnered with the NSP initiative to construct three new homes for low-income families.

“NSP has been a tremendous asset,” she said. “Low-income housing is a significant issue in Hall County.”

A lack of affordable housing increases taxpayer costs for health care and social services, and substandard conditions contribute to poorer academic results for students, Nixon said.

Meanwhile, Habitat homeowners show improvement in their financial stability, their children show improved graduation rates and workers in these homes report having fewer sick days, which increases business productivity, Nixon said.

“All of this leads to a much stronger community for us,” Nixon said, adding that among Habitat children, nearly 70 percent will be homeowners themselves one day. “We’re breaking a generation of poverty.”

Murrayville resident Doug Aiken questioned the wisdom of expanding the program and local government’s involvement in housing.

“There are certain things government should be involved in and certain things they should not,” he said, adding that he believed the NSP was unfairly competing with private enterprise.  

County officials said the program should not be confused with “flipping” houses for a profit.

The NSP is not a profit-making initiative, and Hall County Commission Chairman Richard Mecum said the program is about economic recovery and providing opportunities for low-income families to own homes.

“These are properties no one wants,” he said. “I see no way that we are competing at all with anybody.”

NSP homes are sold at cost or appraised value, and the proceeds are pumped into the next project.

The program is overseen by the county building inspection and grant divisions.

Robinson said the program relies on discounts from Home Depot to acquire building materials.

Additionally, the county works with local realtors to find clients for the redeveloped homes.

“There are a lot of partnerships with our program, so we’re supporting lots of local businesses,” Robinson said.

The NSP came under fire in early 2015 when accounting deficiencies were found in an annual audit.

The 2016 audit was clean, however.

Commissioner Jeff Stowe said he is confident that the problems have been adequately addressed.

Sales prices for NSP homes are now typically between $110,000 and $120,000, a price range local real estate professionals said generates significant demand from low-income and working-class families.  

“It’s definitely fulfilling that need of affordable housing,” Commissioner Billy Powell said.

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