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Editorial: To fix affordable housing issue, officials must convince residents it needs fixing
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Sarah Kirsch, executive director of the Urban Land Institute Atlanta, speaks during a housing forum at Gainesville Municipal Court on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. The community meeting focused on challenges and solutions to affordable housing locally. - photo by Austin Steele

A panel from the Urban Land Institute, in town at the bequest of the United Way to look at the need for “affordable housing,” found that households with incomes less than $60,000 may have a hard time finding a home in the county.

The annual median household income for Hall County residents? $55,622 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The lack of housing on the lower end of the expense spectrum has been a much discussed issue for the past several years. Addressing that need is currently a focus of the United Way.

Formal findings and recommendations from the panel are expected to be presented in about three months, but four broad areas for action were presented by the panel at last week’s session:

  • Education and outreach to the existing residential community

  • Chamber of commerce involvement in a leadership role

  • Continued support for public sector housing

  • Identification of specific areas well suited for revitalization with less expensive housing options

Of those, we would suggest the first is the key to any hope of achieving success with any other recommendations that might be forthcoming.

While there has been much talk of a need for less expensive housing, the reality is there is no great demand from the majority of the area’s residents to make it happen. In fact, just the opposite is the case. To many of those living in the county, lower-end housing is perceived as a detriment rather than a need, one likely to lower property values and create, rather than solve problems.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

Want to plan a neighborhood with high density to allow for cheaper homes? Watch the neighbors rally the forces to protest at a planning and zoning hearing. Thinking about building an apartment complex as an alternative to a traditional detached home subdivision? Be prepared for the outrage of others. Want to build small, basic and cheap? Don’t expect a lot of support for your plans to do so.

While some are convinced that a lack of affordable housing has a detrimental effect on the labor market, prevents young people from moving back into the community, and makes it difficult for those with household incomes near the county median to survive, the reality is the problem doesn’t exist for many of those who live in the county.

From a builders’ standpoint, there are a lot of ways  to address the issue of less expensive housing – smaller homes, smaller building plots, multifamily housing, homes with fewer amenities, denser residential areas, fewer government mandates on building. And for every possible solution there is an existing neighborhood with residents who will be in opposition.

Until the masses agree that a lack of affordable housing truly is an issue that has a negative impact on the community, it will be hard for any initiative to address such concerns to be successful.

Many of the decisions that must be made in order for more affordable homes and rental options to be built require action by elected officials. Elected officials tend to be swayed by their constituents who go to the polls and vote. Many of those constituents do not see housing cost as an urgent matter.

The need for housing that would allow those on the lower end of the economic scale to join the ranks of homeowners, or even to find rental property within their price range, is not one of those causes around which the general public is likely to rally, unless it is convinced there is a reason to do so that affects them.

Therein lies the “education and outreach” challenge as addressed by the Urban Land Institute panel.

For the effort to gain any momentum, some of those with a “not in my backyard” mentality are going to have to be convinced that the overall community can benefit from the inclusion of families who may fall below the median income line.

Elected officials are going to have to be shown that some of the avenues that lead to reduced prices for home are worth traveling, even if it means incurring the wrath of angry voters.

Affordable living areas are going to have to be incorporated into governmental land use planning processes.

Nearly a third of the county’s households are living in rental properties; in the city of Gainesville, the number is above 60 percent. To facilitate their moving into home ownership, there have to be some stepping stones between the financial realities of paying a monthly rent and the mortgage responsibility that goes along with a $200,000 home.

We should all agree that government housing should not be a preferred long-term solution for any family, and yet unless there are affordable options to allow movement, a government subsidized living space may be all some residents ever know.

Hall County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state, but the reality is many with good jobs cannot afford to live where they work.

Affordable housing isn’t a “poor people,” issue in Hall County, it is a community issue affecting young married couples, employees with $30,000 a year jobs, elderly retirees and hardworking families. But until more in the community come to believe the issue affects them, efforts to resolve the problem are going to continue to encounter roadblocks.

To prove the case, there will have to be a concerted education effort based on hard facts, not anecdotal data. What is the impact on the economy? On the labor market? How many are truly in housing limbo? What should the inventory of housing be at various price points? What are the results of economic housing segregation? How much rental property is needed? How does housing mesh with transportation? What is the impact on real families?

And, perhaps most important: What is the potential negative impact on the community if nothing changes?

At this point, a lot of people are banging the affordable housing drum. But more effort needs to go into defining the term, and more data presented so that intelligent decisions are made. Hopefully the United Way initiative and Urban Land Use reports are steps in that direction.

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