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Opinion: What if we actually addressed affordable housing issue? Doing so might look like this
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Construction crews continue to build Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, on an 84-unit affordable housing apartment complex off Atlanta Highway across from Christ Place Church in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers

A lack of affordable housing in the area continues to be a topic of much discussion, as evidenced by an Urban Land Institute’s study conducted last year at the behest of the United Way that we reported on Dec. 29. That study found that more than 40% of the county’s residents are unable to afford a house costing $135,000, while virtually all new homes being constructed cost more than $200,000.

The findings of the report come as no surprise. The lack of housing for low- and middle-income residents has been much discussed in recent years, as the county has followed a suburban growth pattern that typically results in a focus on high-end residential areas and a dearth of lower-priced housing options of any sort.

Residents of the area have long bemoaned the fact that recent graduates entering the job market can’t afford to come home and live in the community; that newlyweds starting a life together can’t afford to buy homes; that those working in service industries have no housing options; and even that some professionals ensconced firmly in the middle class have a hard time finding a place to live they can afford.

And it’s all true.

We wonder, though, how serious the community is about solving the problem, and how willing elected officials are to take steps necessary to improve the situation.

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

With a true free market economy, builders would see the market potential for cheaper housing options and would work to meet that need with products that would satisfy consumer needs. But in this case, government plays an outsized role in making that approach less tenable, both in terms of reluctance to sanction lower-priced solutions and adding building cost through regulation.

Despite the lip-service paid to the issue, there is a distinct disconnect at the neighborhood level when affordable housing solutions are proposed. Much like the construction of jails, landfills or sewer plants, many people are convinced of the necessity but unwilling to see it happen in their backyard.

How else to explain the frequent collective uproar that seems to happen anytime a builder proposes a high-density project designed to offer cheaper housing options to those who need it? Suggest the construction of small homes on less than quarter-acre lots and watch the opposition organize. Propose multifamily rental housing near existing residential communities and listen for the uproar.

There are those who want to talk about the need for affordable housing, but they don’t want to look out the window of their quarter-million-dollar homes at a neighborhood with houses that could be purchased for $100,000.

The public’s expectation that suburban life is best served by a steadily increasing average home price and the high-end neighborhoods associated with the same reverberates with elected officials, who are more than willing to impose the sort of building regulations that drive housing prices ever higher.

A 2016 study for the National Association of Homebuilders found that an average of nearly 25% of the final price of a new home was attributable to the many government regulations involved in the construction process.

In addition to the cost associated with gaining approval of building projects, tapping into government utilities and undergoing inspections, governing regulations affect many of the construction decisions that result in directly higher costs for new homes – mandating lot size, mandating square footage, mandating certain building materials for aesthetic purposes, mandating number of bedrooms, size of garages, etc., etc., etc.

What a difference it might make if that 25% cost factor could be reduced to, say, 10%. Think of the impact that could have on the local housing market for both home ownership and rentals.

If the community is serious about making more affordable housing available, local governments are a good place to start.

Imagine what might happen if all area governments initiated a concerted review effort with the goal of reducing the government-imposed cost on new construction within six months. Maybe such a review would determine that mandatory lot sizes could be decreased, square footages reduced, tap-on fees lowered, approval fees abolished and quality growth could continue just the same.

What if local governments reviewed their expectations for multifamily rental options and discovered ways to reduce costs that don’t really affect the quality of construction? What if eliminating and reducing regulations allowed a free market approach to housing to address the need of affordability?

And what if elected officials had the political nerve to say to angry crowds opposing new construction, “We need housing in that price range, so we will approve these plans despite the opposition?”

If those things could happen, then maybe sheriff’s deputies and school teachers could afford to buy a home; maybe college graduates could find an apartment within their budget; maybe those in service industry jobs wouldn’t have to drive to work from 30 miles away.

What if, indeed.

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