Affordable housing is a problem throughout Georgia, not just in Athens

The supply of affordable housing units is extremely low in Georgia in the wake of the pandemic, leading to higher rents and increased homelessness among adults and families. Advocates across the state are calling for action, though some proposed solutions — such as calls to repeal Georgia’s long-standing ban on rent control — have proven unsuccessful.

Across the state, the number of units renting under $600 fell significantly by about 67,000 between 2019 and 2021, according to a report released this year by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. A monthly rent of $600 is the maximum amount that families making $24,000 or less a year can afford. Federal guidelines define affordable housing as spending no more than 30% of income on housing.

According to the study, Georgia is among the states that have seen one of the steepest losses in low-cost rental inventory in the country. Katie Byers, director of St. Anne Community Outreach, a Columbus-based nonprofit that provides rental and utility assistance, said one reason for the decline in affordable homes is that many landlords sold their properties after the pandemic.

“The interest in selling a home went up right after the coronavirus. “It was like everyone was putting their homes up for sale,” Byers said. “So when the market got really crazy, you know, I think a lot of realtors decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to go ahead and liquidate my properties.’ And I think across the board, the price hikes in everything immediately followed that.”

Families face difficult choices

Since the federal moratorium on evictions expired in 2021 and more than $500 million in federal rental assistance ran out during the pandemic, renters across the state are starting to feel the financial pinch again. An increasing number of families are resorting to life in long-term accommodation hotels or temporarily moving from one place to another.

Individuals and families who are not technically homeless — that is, they are not residing outside on the street, in a car, or in a shelter — face greater challenges when seeking assistance to obtain permanent housing.

“This is a difficult group to help because our program, for example, is actually meant to prevent evictions. They’ve already been evicted,” Byers said. “And then the people you think are going to help are the homeless programs, but they don’t qualify because they’re not homeless. So they fall in the middle. So I see this group really growing.

This is forcing families to make some very difficult decisions, said Cathy Williams, founding director of NeighborWorks America, a federally funded nonprofit with a chapter in Columbus.

“They’ll either live in a slum because that’s all they can afford, or they’ll live in something more than they can afford,” Williams said. “And if anything happens in the family unit, if a child gets sick or a car breaks down, they often have to leave.”

“The third option is to go into non-traditional housing, whether that’s moving back home, moving in with friends, couchsurfing, or living in your car. These are the decisions that our families who don’t have access to have to make,” Williams said. on adequate salaries.

In addition to fewer affordable units and reduced pandemic assistance, the dynamic between landlords and tenants plays an important role. Although most landlords do their best to be flexible with their tenants, having to shoulder property expenses when tenants can’t afford payments makes many landlords reluctant to renew leases, Byers and other nonprofit leaders said. As a result, many landlords allow tenants’ leases to be converted to a month-to-month status, leaving tenants sometimes paying $300 more than the amount listed on the lease.

On top of paying higher rents, utility rates are also rising, Byers said. Georgia Power customers this summer have already been hit by a 12% price increase, with more increases expected as the company flips the switch on a nuclear expansion at the budget-busting Vogtle plant. About 30% of people who seek help from St. Anne’s have a stable income from either disability or Social Security income. Many of them live on less than $800 a month, and a $50 utility rate hike could be enough to send someone into eviction, she said.

The loss of affordable housing in Georgia is an important trend to watch, said Tom Murphy, communications director for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The rate of unsheltered homelessness has been rising since 2017, and the pandemic has exacerbated the growth, he said. According to data in the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 18 out of every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States; People living in families with children constitute 28% of this sample.

And in Atlanta, which has one of the highest rates of homeless people in the state, rents are constantly rising. According to an ApartmentList.com report, the average rent in Atlanta is $1,529, making the state capital one of the most expensive large cities in the country, although the cost of rent fell about 4.1% in the past year. (Editor’s Note: Same report included Average rent in Athens At $1,183, up 5.8% from last August.)

Even through decades of growth, said John O’Callaghan, president and CEO of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, a nonprofit organization that develops and funds affordable housing, even through decades of growth, it has remained an affordable city. But after the foreclosure crisis of 2008, many investors bought real estate and pushed up housing costs when the economy recovered, driving many families of color out of their neighborhoods.

Affordable housing advocacy groups, including the Socialism and Liberation Party, the Housing Justice League, and the Georgia for All Coalition, are seeking to lift the state’s 39-year-old ban on rent control as a possible solution. Rent control is a state policy that caps the amount landlords can charge for rent, but efforts to control rent through the Georgia legislature have historically been unsuccessful. The bill introduced by Senator Donzella James (D-Atlanta) this year has not yielded results.

“Often, when politicians run for office, when they run for election, they often run on the basis of the affordable housing programme,” said Satya Vati, PSL Community Organiser. “We’ve seen it time and time again. But when it really comes down to it, they’ve done very little to alleviate the crisis of high rents and evictions for the majority of people who live in the state.

“That’s why we have little or no protection, but when it comes to protecting the rights of landlords, you know, they are there. They are front and center to do that,” Fati said.

Both O’Callaghan and Williams said that although rent control appears to be a viable option for many renters, nonprofit executives, advocates, and local officials should look for immediate ways to build capital.

“The state runs the entire housing income tax credit program for Georgia, but those dollars are federal dollars,” O’Callaghan said. “We are able to use that to get it to developers who may not be able to build affordable housing to help supply. So obviously rent control could be one of those solutions, but there are other things the state can do.

State legislators have made attempts to address the state’s housing affordability shortage, but many of those efforts, which have focused largely on curtailing local housing regulations over the objections of city and county officials, have been unsuccessful.

Supply and demand

One bill targeting quality rental housing gained traction this year, but stalled in the Georgia Senate, surviving for next year. Rep. Casey Carpenter, R-Dalton, sponsored the Home Safety Act that requires landlords to maintain rental properties, ensuring a safe living environment for tenants for the duration of the lease. As someone who has grown up on rental property, Carpenter said he understands this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. However, Carpenter said the solution could be as simple as bringing more residential properties to the market.

“Just have them build some housing. And then it’ll flow,” Carpenter said. “So say they’re building two-bedroom apartments, and they’re $2,500 a month, oh boy, if someone moves in, they’re coming out of something. So that he liberates all that came out of him. If they’re moving out of a $1,500 a month unit, that opens up the space for someone else.

“But you have to address the speed at which people can build homes,” he said. “(And addressing) the loopholes where they have to jump through to do things that might not be necessary, from a regulatory point of view, and then make sure that if people don’t pay their rent, they’re not there so it doesn’t affect the people who pay.”

Studies indicate that simply building more housing alone will not solve the problem. “The rising cost of land, labor, and building materials has emerged as a major challenge for homebuilders and developers. Input prices for new residential construction have increased by 35% since the start of the pandemic,” according to a 2023 Harvard University report. For Fati and other advocates of affordable housing, a piecemeal approach is not enough. When families have to decide between paying their rent to avoid eviction or buying groceries.

Some local officials in Georgia have begun to grapple with the housing shortage, such as Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who recently announced a new Rapid Housing initiative, which allocates $4 million to the city’s continuity of care to install rapid housing units in city-owned areas. properties. The agency recently received a $5 million grant from Truist Bank to help develop affordable housing for low-income families and individuals. Other nonprofit leaders are taking notice.

“It doesn’t mean there’s not interest in (affordable housing),” NeighborWorks’ Williams said. “Because I will say that for the first time, in a long time, there appears to be recognition and interest in the impact of the affordable housing crisis.”

This article originally appeared on Georgiarecorder.com.

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