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Slow progress made to address affordable housing shortage
About 1 in 4 homeowners in Hall County are cost-burdened
City of Gainesville housing director Chris Davis surveys the recently completed Northwestern Cottages off Mill Street in Gainesville. The cottages are built specifically for low-income home buyers.

There’s nothing quite like seeing a project come to fruition.

That’s a feeling Chris Davis, Gainesville’s housing manager, has relished in recent weeks as the final touches are being made to a cluster of affordable homes on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Mill Street.

It marks a small, but important, dent in the city’s affordable housing crunch, which The Times explored in a January series: Home in Hard Places.

About 1 in 4 homeowners in Hall County are cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Nearly half of all renters across the county are cost-burdened.

The numbers are worse in Gainesville’s city limits, where nearly 42 percent of the city’s housing 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.

Local government, business and nonprofit leaders acknowledge the deteriorating conditions of homes in the area and rising costs for renters and homeowners, which present public safety, educational and economic consequences for the region.

And they have stepped up over the better half of the past year to meet this growing challenge.

The four houses on MLK have a shared driveway and cottage community vibe. The homes are now on the market, and Davis said he is acquiring two properties across the street to build out as well in the next year.

Gainesville received a $1 million state grant last year to construct these affordable single-family homes.

Grants also support the city’s renovation projects on existing homes in neighborhoods like Newtown, as well.

And, not to be outdone, state grant funding through the Community Home Investment Program, which assists local governments, nonprofits and public housing authorities in addressing neighborhood blight, was critical for seven Hall County homeowners to maintain their quality housing in middle- and low-income neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Hall County officials moved in the early spring to expand 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.

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.

Local business leaders have also gotten involved in addressing the shortage of affordable housing.

Land-use ordinances, zoning restrictions and code enforcement play an important role in protecting the environment and quality of life for residents.

But there is also a desire to tweak what can be tweaked to accommodate the city’s need for affordable, quality housing in both the buyer’s and renter’s markets.

So when Gainesville officials changed an ordinance this year to allow for pervious surface parking lots, Frank Norton president and CEO of The Norton Agency real estate firm in Gainesville, took advantage.

He will use them at the cottage home community he is developing off Enota Avenue, which lowers his costs and ultimately the costs for tenants.

Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, a leading nonprofit developing affordable homes for families working their way into the middle class, is doing its part. It is continuing to build out the

Copper Glen subdivision off Baker Road near Ga. 60/Candler Road,

Habitat acquired 42 acres at this site through a donation and plans to build 21 homes plus a walking trail and community garden.

Habitat building director Tim Williams said three homes are complete and two more are under construction.

Of course, it’s not all gravy.

Proposed affordable housing developments across Hall County have drawn opposition from several corners.

One proposal in particular — a 240-unit complex off Pine Valley and White Sulphur roads in Gainesville — was met with pushback from city officials.

Officials said they must consider the impact every new development might have on the school system, traffic and public service demand.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface on affordable housing,” Norton, vigilant and skeptical, said. “Density prejudice, zoning codes, building standards and economic incentives must be woven together to build a comprehensive affordable housing initiative. Where are our kids going to live?”