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How a state committee intends to explore solutions to affordable housing crisis
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One of the completed housing units at Walton Summit apartment complex on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Gainesville, the new mixed-income development on EE Butler Parkway. - photo by David Barnes

Shortages of affordable housing for middle- and low-income families have become so common in communities across Georgia that a Republican-led state legislative study committee will meet later this year to examine the issue.

According to the latest market report from ApartmentList.com, rents in Gainesville have increased 0.8 percent this month, and by 2.5 percent over the last 12 months.

“This is the second straight month that the city has seen rent increases after a decline in March,” the report states. “Gainesville's year-over-year rent growth leads the state average of 2.3 percent, as well as the national average of 1.5 percent.”

According to census figures, about half of all renters in Gainesville meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s qualification of “rent-burdened,” meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

And about 60 percent of all residential units in the city are renter-occupied.

But it’s not just a simple matter of supply and demand, although demand far outweighs supply in cities like Gainesville, and new development is a component in mitigating the problem.

Zoning and building regulations at the county and municipal level can also be significant contributing factors that inhibit affordable housing development.

According to Georgia House Bill 591, “The committee shall undertake a study of the conditions, needs, issues, and problems” that may be contributing to affordable housing needs “and recommend any action or legislation which the committee deems necessary or appropriate.”

The bill notes that there is a “proven need for workforce housing” in Georgia and that the “requirements of residential design mandates exist outside the realm of building integrity and have no connection to the safety and welfare of the citizens of Georgia.”

Moreover, “For the purposes of protecting private property rights, allowing for consumer choice, and encouraging the development of affordable housing options, it would be beneficial to review the existing regulation and current practices relating to locally adopted residential design mandates,” the bill states.

Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, who will chair the committee, said education and housing go hand-in-hand when meeting the economic needs of the state.

“The way our state’s growing, and the way we’re attracting businesses to our state … where are these (workers) going to live?” Smith said. “They can’t all live in the most expensive homes or the most expensive apartments. I think it’s an issue we need to take a look at. We’re going to start at ground zero.”

Smith said he and the five-person committee must still determine some of the parameters of their meetings, including when and where they’ll meet, how often, who they’ll invite (city planners, tenants, businesses) and precisely what local regulations they intend to review.

“We don’t want to do all the talking,” Smith said. “We want to do a lot of listening.”

The committee will likely begin meeting in the late summer, Smith said, and may make recommendations by December for potential action when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2020.

“I want to learn, also,” Smith said. “Let’s see where we’re going.”

Gainesville’s planning officials made a significant change in 2016 when it reworked regulations to reduce impervious surfaces, such as driveways and parking spaces.

The change was aimed at “implementing better water quality objectives,” according to Matt Tate, deputy director of community and economic development for the city of Gainesville.

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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

But it also opened the door for developers to include porous surfaces, such as gravel or grass pavers, in new construction.

Other recent changes to Gainesville’s code, according to Tate, have included allowing more compact parking.

“The authority was given to the Department of Water Resources director to determine when and what type of porous materials can be used within parking lots which could reduce the cost for providing storm water detention,” Tate added. “However, pervious paving can be more expensive to install depending on what type of material is used.”

Frank Norton, CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency real estate firm based in Gainesville, said he’s been appreciative of city government’s “willingness to cooperate and experiment” in this regard.

For example, he utilized porous driveways when developing a string of “cottage” homes on Enota Drive in Gainesville, which minimize some expense by not having to mass grade the site.

Norton said he was also able to preserve about 70-80 percent of the old-growth trees on the property.

Maintaining this tree cover not only provides an aesthetic ambiance to the property, he said, but it also helps residents in these homes save money in the hot summer months by keeping their places naturally cool.

Norton said he’d like to see some additional leeway in code and building regulations.

For example, incentives such as lower water and sewer fees could be used to spur developers to commit to building new homes for sale below $170,000 and apartments with rents below $1,400.

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Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency - photo by David Barnes

It’s a pledge Norton said he’d take as he continues to develop and unveil new residential properties in Gainesville.

Additionally, Norton said, he’d like the city to reconsider how it charges impact fees on new construction, which are in place to ostensibly support accompanying growth and use of public resources like parks, libraries and law enforcement.

Gainesville officials this month increased the impact fee per new residential dwelling unit to $2,802.91 from $1,589.

“There’s something wrong with that formula,” Norton said.

There have also been calls to pump impact fee revenue into an affordable housing development fund.

Norton isn’t looking to turn back the clock, however.

“Affordability is never going to get better,” he said. “But we can slow (rising prices) down.”

A range of housing options is critical to meet the workforce needs of the local metropolitan area, he said, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the state.

“We believe a community ought to offer multiple price points in housing,” Norton said. “We need to trickle that down to the hourly workers.”

This is especially true with the dramatic growth taking place at the University of North Georgia campus in Gainesville, as well as at Brenau University and on the new campus of Lanier Technical College in North Hall.

Reducing the commute students and workers have to make is critical to the cultural health and vibrancy of Hall County, Norton said, not to mention its economic fortunes.

“We’ve got to find a way to pull people back here,” he said.

For Norton, the answer begins with some basic education about the nature of subsidized housing and non-government affordable housing, whether for low-income families or seniors.

“Everyone thinks affordable housing is tenement” housing, Norton said, and doing a better job of “communicating that density is not a problem if managed well” will help.  

“There’s a feeling that apartments won’t last,” he added. “But they do last and are of enduring value to our community.”


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