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Housing leaders say Hall County lacks sustainable supply of affordable housing
More than half of residents pay more than 30 percent of income on housing
0124housing
More than half of Hall County residents pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, meaning they are cost-burdened, according to federal guidelines.

Home in hard places

A series on affordable housing issues in Hall County and Gainesville. See more stories, interactive maps and videos at the above link.

Average fair market rent in Hall County

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, some 40 percent of properties would cost less, excluding public housing, substandard housing, units built in the past two years and some other properties. Cost includes utilities.

1 bedroom: $691
2 bedroom: $824
3 bedroom: $1,069

Hear personal stories of housing struggles Thursday at Voices: Home in Hard Places

 

In real estate, “location, location, location” is the old adage that wins the day.

When it comes to defining the niche of affordable housing, however, it’s all about cost and availability.

“One of the things I’m studying is the evaporation of affordable housing in our area,” said Frank Norton, president and CEO of The Norton Agency real estate firm in Gainesville.

Rising land and construction costs, social and political pressures and government regulation (through building codes and land-use ordinances), have squeezed the market so tight that demand far outweighs supply across the market: single-family homes, townhomes, apartments and retirement housing.

“The need for affordable housing is varied and is greater than the supply,” said Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority.

Norton said he believes “affordable and habitable stick-built homes priced under $175,000 could evaporate by 2020,” while condos and multifamily townhomes in that price range for purchase “will evaporate by 2023.”

“It has pushed the price point of affordable housing further and further out of reach for those who need it,” Norton said.

Job growth has also caused inventory to shrink, though wages have been slower to increase.

The 4.2 percent unemployment rate for the Gainesville metro area is the lowest it has been since April 2008 and is the lowest in Georgia.

But for these trends to continue, business leaders said it’s critical housing costs and availability meet the needs of a growing region.

Affordable housing, after all, is not just about improving the quality of life in low-income neighborhoods. Increasing availability and lowering costs has significant economic benefits to local communities.

The National Law Review, for example, reports that affordable housing helps create and sustain jobs, increases local government tax revenues, can improve property values and generates new consumer spending by allowing households to save for groceries, clothing, medical expenses and higher education.

“Affordability, proximity, quality and supply to employment centers like Gainesville-Hall County have an impact on the workforce and employers we attract as a community,” Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said. “Housing is the single largest expense for most households. For businesses, the cost of living shows up in the form of local wages.”

HIGH COST OF RENTING

Rentals are an area of particular concern in the local housing market, with monthly rates climbing between 7 and 15 percent in the past year or so.

“We’re seeing some folks facing a $75-a-month rate increase unless we reverse the trend,” Norton said.

Rent on the average two-bedroom apartment is up 4.1 percent in Georgia over the past 12 months compared with 2.7 percent nationally.

And rising rents could be the norm for the next half decade, Norton said.

That could be more problematic locally than elsewhere in the state. In Gainesville, 65 percent of households rent; that rate statewide is flipped, with just 35 percent of all households renting.

Affordable housing comes in many forms: public housing, subsidized units for the elderly and disabled, rents that meet Department of Housing and Urban Development fair market rates.

But one measure has long defined affordability: whether you are spending 30 percent or more of your income on housing costs.

If so, you are considered “cost burdened,” according to federal guidelines.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the number of renters has risen in all income groups since 2005. However, there has been larger growth among low-income renters who pay out of pocket than those who receive assisted or subsidized units.

There are 43 million renters across the country, up 9 million over the past 10 years, but only 8.2 million rental units were added during that period.

There are 1.2 million total renters in Georgia.

With supply lagging behind demand — rents for apartments nationally have risen for 23 straight months — the number of cost-burdened renters has spiked.

Nearly half of all Atlanta households, for example, spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to census figures.

In Hall County, meanwhile, nearly half of all of renters (about 20,000 total units) are cost-burdened, and that number tops 50 percent in Gainesville (about 12,000 units).

LOW WAGES, HIGHER COSTS

Low-income families are particularly hard hit by housing costs.

For example, across Hall, 21.8 percent of renters earning less than $20,000 annually are cost-burdened, while 14.7 percent of all renters in the $20,000 to $35,000 income bracket are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Homeowners are also spending too much.

About 1 in 4 owner-occupied homes in Hall County (about 43,000 units) are cost-burdened and nearly 30 percent in Gainesville (about 16,000 units).

According to the census, 32 percent of Gainesville’s population lived below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, compared with just about 18 percent of the state and county’s population.

In Gainesville, the NLIHC reports that a worker would have to earn $15.85 an hour to afford a two-bedroom home at the $824 fair market rate set by HUD.

The average two-bedroom in the state is $817 a month. On average, a worker would have to earn $15.71 an hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Georgia, compared with $19.35 nationally.

A minimum wage worker in Hall (earning $7.25 an hour), would have to log 72 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom in the area.

“In no state can an individual working a typical 40-hour work week at the federal minimum wage afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment …” the coalition reports.

The struggle to keep a roof overhead is all too familiar to Stephanie Acevedo and her family, who live in Flowery Branch.

They rent a singlewide trailer, but find moving up the social ladder more difficult than they imagined.

“We plan on expanding our family and we’re stuck where we’re at,” Acevedo said. “Everywhere we look, it’s too expensive. I think it’s cheaper to buy a house these days and pay a mortgage than rent.”

Of course, it can be easier to rent, especially with a husband working long hours in manufacturing and a young daughter at home.

“We pay $500 per month … we’re lucky for what we have, but it’s not always easy,” Acevedo said.

Willie Glenn, a 64-year-old Navy veteran, is in an interesting predicament.

Glenn had to leave his previous apartment when renovations designed to attract higher-income tenants began last summer.

The financial cost of moving, coupled with a lack of housing options, limited where he could go. Glenn had been paying just $395 a month in rent.

He was able to secure a studio apartment at Church Street Manor in Gainesville, where elderly and disabled residents receive government assistance.

But this place appears to be on the chopping block, headed for commercial redevelopment in the coming years, which means Glenn will have to look again for affordable housing where little exists.

 

AFFORDABLE HOMES HARD TO FIND

The city already has a cap on the number of public housing units allowed, set at 500, and private developers and landlords are being eyed to fill the inventory gap for affordable units.

It’s been slow going, however, and the market may contract before it expands.

“I can tell you supply is very limited across all price points and sizes,” said Tommy Howard, chief operating officer at The Norton Agency. “I know with our supply, we are 95 percent occupied.”

The Green Hunter Homes, a public housing complex on Atlanta Street, is headed for demolition — an effort to eradicate drug and crime problems.

Both affordable and market-rate units will be built in its place for a diverse group of residents: seniors, students and working-class families.

The project would result in 252 new apartments, which would increase residential capacity overall, but just a few dozen will remain reserved as public housing.

Gainesville missed an opportunity in 2014 to secure a commitment for new affordable housing when the nonprofit Atlanta-based developer Mercy Housing Southeast and city leaders could not agree on a purchase price for land off Queen City Parkway at Banks Street, across from the city’s Public Safety Complex.

Mercy had planned to construct a 94,000-square-foot, 90-unit apartment complex on the 2.2-acre site, with most units rented to households at 50 percent and 60 percent of the area median income.

There are signs of life elsewhere, however.

Three apartment complexes off Park Hill Drive in Gainesville that primarily house working-class minorities and immigrants received a major face-lift and new security thanks to a more than $2 million renovation investment from Greenleaf Management.

And Habitat for Humanity of Hall County is developing a 21-home subdivision off Baker Road near Ga. 60/Candler Road.

Gainesville Housing Manager Chris Davis, meanwhile, has several single-family homes in line to construct along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Finally, the city’s new downtown strategic plan, aimed at guiding growth in the urban core over the next several decades, calls for residences to be constructed as part of mixed-use developments.

But reminders of barriers to affordable housing remain.

“It affects everyone,” said Phillippa Lewis Moss, director of the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center.

But it doesn’t always affect everyone equally, Moss added.

Seniors, minorities and low-income residents of Gainesville are particularly vulnerable to a shortage of housing and high costs. Many have to offset their rents and mortgages by seeking more public resources, such as food bank support, heating assistance and public transit.

In his recent annual real estate forecast, Norton noted how about 4 million people across the country have moved from homeowner to tenant in the past decade.

Things are no different here.

“I have some strong concerns about our continued ability to provide affordable housing anywhere in Northeast Georgia,” Norton said.

And that can be problematic for the local economy in years to come.

“The impact that affordable housing can have on a community goes beyond the surface of just housing poor people,” Brown said. “It can have positive effects on economic development, property values, tax base, employment rates and educational achievement.”

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