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Solutions to affordable housing shortage come from variety of sources
Private, public sector leaders agree on need to keep economy strong
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Chris Davis, housing division manager with the City of Gainesville's Community Development Department, speaks about solutions to affordable housing issues as part of a panel at The Times' Voices: Home in Hard Places event put on Thursday at The Loft at Scott's Downtown in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Home in hard places

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

Affordable housing resources: A list of programs, how they work and contact information.

A lack of affordable, quality housing in Gainesville and Hall County and its effects on the area economy and residents’ quality of life are issues that must be addressed sooner than later, according to local business, government and nonprofit leaders.

“Every bit that we invest as a community in affordable housing will then save us in decreased food subsidies, decreased health care expenses, increased community intellectual capital, increased workplace efficiency,” said Ann Nixon, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Hall County. “And let us not forget the intangible, but swiftly sought, increases in feeling good about ourselves, about our community and about our hope for a better tomorrow than what we see today.”

Potential ways to increase the affordable housing stock — whether rental units or single-family homes for purchase — are many and varied. But experts believe opportunities exist to meet the demands of a growing community.

“The development of affordable housing communities must be thoughtful and include buy-in from the community leaders, as well as the community at large,” Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, said. “Funding of these communities will be complicated and include multiple layers of public and private funding. Although no two communities are exactly alike, there are many successful models that we can learn from.”

EDUCATION IS KEY

Housing advocates have acknowledged that things could be worse without the work of existing programs offered by organizations like Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, the Gainesville Housing Authority and local government.

“Not surprisingly, after three years of Habitat homeownership, almost 30 percent report financial improvement for them and their families,” Nixon said. “As (former Gainesville High and current Clemson University star quarterback) Deshaun Watson expressed in December, moving into his Habitat home ‘completely changed my life.’”  

Moving forward, public involvement and investment will be required to adequately address shortages of affordable, according to advocates. But they’re not just talking about policy prescriptions or funding, though these are considerations.

It begins with educating people about the problem, what options exist to alleviate it and thinking outside the box about how to grow the community for a new generation.

Residents and taxpayers play a central role, but so does private industry.

“Local businesses should encourage and support the preservation and creation of affordable housing for their workforce,” said Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for the Gainesville regional office of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm that provides free services to eligible low-income residents. “Larger companies might consider actually providing housing for their workers, much like some of the textile mills used to.”

Affordable housing can help stabilize businesses by limiting employee turnover and productivity losses, advocates say.

“Habitat homeowners report 26 percent fewer work days lost to illness,” Nixon said.

Frank Norton, president and CEO of The Norton Agency real estate firm in Gainesville, is trying to spearhead his own solution, cottage by cottage.

Infill development can help rejuvenate delinquent properties in the city, raising property values while adding affordable, quality homes.

Having affordable housing located near the urban core of Hall’s cities will be essential to meeting the workforce needs of local businesses and the lifestyle demands of middle- and lower-income families and seniors, advocates say. For example, it allows families who rely on public transportation, or those who cannot afford long travel distances by private vehicle, to reside near jobs and services.

Norton has plans for several freestanding cottage home villages in Gainesville, including along Enota Drive.
“I want to build quality,” first and foremost, he said.

Norton has identified eight other locations for similar developments within Gainesville, and he believes they will be models for other builders.

With just 35 percent of homes in Gainesville owner-occupied, the availability of rental units cannot keep pace with supply.

“The lack of affordable housing is a crisis for the entire community,” Glasbrenner said. “If we work together we can make a difference.”

FUNDING OPTIONS

Grant funding can be a major lift. Just ask Gainesville Housing Manager Chris Davis.

The city received a $1 million state grant last year to construct affordable single-family homes between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Mill Street.

And grants also support rehabilitation projects on existing homes.

Glasbrenner said expanding grants to include substantial direct investments to landlords who offer affordable housing could be a next step.

“This would encourage landlords to repair their current properties and possibly rehabilitate others, while keeping the rent affordable,” she added.

Land banks have become more common in cities and counties in recent years.

Tim Williams, building director of Habitat for Humanity of Hall County, said Thursday at The Times’ live “Voices: Home in Hard Places” event he supported land banks as a way to acquire, manage and rehabilitate vacant and abandoned properties for sale or other use.

Land bank authorities can wield enormous influence. There have been calls among lawmakers in recent years to limit the reach and addition of such quasi-governmental bodies.

Davis said blight taxes are a consideration as a way to apply pressure on property owners to clean up and rejuvenate properties.

Officials will have to account for how such taxes are applied, and the potential impact on small businesses and low-income tenants who could see costs passed on.

LAND USE, CODE ENFORCEMENT

Land-use ordinances, zoning restrictions and code enforcement play an obvious and important role in both protecting and stimulating quality of life – and finances. Balancing where different types of development are located is not easy, and pressures change with the times.

“It is human nature to be scared of the unknown,” Norton said.

But as the workforce demands of the county and region grow, reconsidering how neighborhoods are integrated will require input from all sectors: residents, government, business and nonprofits.

“The economy is rebounding,” Nixon said. “Companies are expanding and seeking larger employee populations. Where are those workers going to live?”

As reported in the past week, housing will be a focus when Hall County and other local cities begin this year’s process of updating their comprehensive plans, which will guide and manage growth for the next 20 years or more.

Glasbrenner said including a preservation plan within this comprehensive scope could help shape goals and criteria for the allocation of resources between neighborhoods to ensure quality, affordable stock.

“This plan should address the need for adequate housing for vulnerable populations such as low-income seniors, persons with disabilities, persons who have been homeless, and those returning to the community from incarceration,” she added.

Hall County Planning Director Srikanth Yamala said it will be critical for the plan to address the county’s changing economic needs when it comes to housing, including evaluating potential changes in land-use policy and evolving demographics.

Atlanta is one of a few cities to have recently adopted a policy requiring affordable housing impact statements, akin to environmental impact reports, as part of proposed developments and rezoning. Advocates say this requirement could help ensure that affordable units are set aside at predominantly market-rate complexes.

“The city could require any redevelopment of subsidized housing projects to provide an adequate number of low-income units,” Glasbrenner said.

PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERS

Government and business have a unique role in affordable housing, one that seems to be on the verge of expansion. Already there are many privately owned and government subsidized rental complexes in the area.

Private developer Walton Communities is partnering with the housing authority to demolish the Green Hunter Homes on Atlanta Street and construct new affordable and market-rate units in its place. This partnership will bring $10 million in cash to the project through a tax credit program.

IMPACT FEES

County and municipal governments regularly collect “impact fees” from new development and construction. These revenues are then directed to support resulting growth in local services.

For example, Hall County collects impact fees to support libraries, fire services, parks and law enforcement.

As new commercial and residential development emerges, some impact fees could potentially be directed to supporting renovation projects on homes and apartment complexes.