By Bill Crane, contributor
“The reality is that no city has gotten this right, and in true Atlanta fashion, I truly believe we will be the first to get it right in terms of the affordable housing challenge across this country,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at the June 2019 launch of her ‘One Atlanta‘ Housing Affordability Action Plan.
Atlanta was home to our nation’s first public housing project, Techwood Homes, dedicated by then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935. Techwood was intended to eliminate a shanty-town and slum area known as Tanyard Bottom or the Tech Flats. Techwood Homes was initially successful, and largely occupied by lower and lower middle income working families heading into and out of the World War II era. It would eventually become a slum of its own, with high crime, frequent vandalism and significant negative impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and communities. Techwood Homes was demolished prior to the Centennial Olympic Games, and along with nearby Clark Howell Homes, also then managed by the Atlanta Housing Authority. It was replaced by a mixed-use and mixed-home price area called Centennial Place. Across Atlanta and most other major American cities the high and mid-rise neighborhoods that came to be viewed as warehousing the poor in dangerous, high crime settings have largely been demolished and that type of public housing is no longer being developed. And yet, nearly 85 years after the dedication of Techwood Homes, we still are challenged by the very definition of Affordable Housing
From the website of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and how it determines who might be worthy of assistance in finding ‘affordable housing.’ It can’t get much vaguer than this…
Who Needs Affordable Housing?
“Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.“
The old standard of setting aside roughly 25% of income for housing expenses has been largely set aside by all but the uber wealthy and real estate investors with multiple residential properties.
Starter Home Prices Getting Stratospheric – The average monthly apartment rent within the Atlanta city limits is now $1800.00. Average starter home prices are north of $250,000. There are huge segments of the population in most major metropolitan areas who have been effectively priced out of owning a home.
Housing Authorities, which once controlled the largest block of public housing options as well as Section 8 rental vouchers have either been sidelined, or are now focused on the reconstruction/conversion of the old model of public housing, into newer model success stories, such as the newer Villages of East Lake replacing East Lake Meadows in East Atlanta, or Tobie Grant Manor replacing the rapidly deteriorating Tobie Grant Housing Project in Scottdale, Georgia.
Newer public housing developments feature a mix of tenant incomes, the idea being that all residents may become better renters, as well as strive for more upward mobility if they see and experience their neighbors climbing their own career ladders, growing their families and moving along and up in this world.
Atlanta’s Mayor has set a target for building/bringing to market $1-billion worth of new affordable housing. Older apartment complexes and not particularly well maintained slum-lord housing options dot Atlanta as they do most major cities. Building codes are not always strictly enforced, and these older units often have issues with sanitation, pestilence and fully functioning plumbing, utilities and appliances.
But builders, developers and property owners cannot be expected to endlessly supply housing, apartments or even S.R.O. hotel rooms for less than their costs of maintenance or bringing to market. Expecting Atlanta’s fast-growing Beltline to provide a wealth of affordable housing options for longtime area residents was a fantasy at best. New residents and longtime Atlantans are flocking to be Beltline adjacent, owning and renting, at prices which at best can be described as surpassing Buckhead rents and home prices.
The city can make it more difficult and expensive for developers to acquire and build, but it is also those new developments and the later property taxes which they will generate that are making possible the funding and construction of the Beltline itself. You can’t have that Golden Egg, without also putting up with a prized rooster or two servicing some laying hens, no matter how showy, loud and obnoxious some of them may be.
The new Mayor appears committed to creating more affordable housing units, but despite a 43-page “One Atlanta” plan, touching on issues ranging from gentrification, to senior resident displacement, entrenched homelessness, etc…there are not a lot of specifics of how to slow or supplant the rise in home prices other than to hope for another major recession. There remain pockets of Atlanta and the metro region where home mortgages are still underwater from the devastating collapse of real estate prices which began in 2008.
However, as it relates to new options for affordable construction and housing, there are some non-traditional options which are working well elsewhere, and which can and should be a part of the solution here.
Habitat for Humanity – Founded in Americus, Georgia in 1976, Habitat for Humanity is now global in scope and has helped more than $13.2-million people achieve the stability and self-reliance of home ownership. Habitat owners are required to be employed, to pay an affordable mortgage, graduate from a home ownership course and to contribute “sweat equity” including participation in the construction of their home, typically built principally with donated materials and labor.
Tiny Houses – Most city building codes do not allow the construction or even permanent siting of Tiny Houses (250-900 square feet) other than for use as a guest cottage or out-building, as these affordable structures will not generate substantial property taxes and have been replaced with larger lot sizes and average home sizes. Yet Georgia municipalities including Clarkston, East Point, Fayetteville and others are fast finding there to be a market and a sense of immediate community which springs up within and around a Tiny House cluster or community.
Shipping Container Homes – Atlanta, being a rail hub, is home to hundreds if not thousands of now obsolete or no longer in use shipping containers, which ride rail cars or on the trailer behind an 18-wheeler. Old containers can be purchased online and brought to a home-site for less than $2000-3000. They are hardy, weather resistant and rather simple to assemble together or stack into a variety of affordable housing options.
Duplex/Triplex/Quads – Long in vogue in older community court apartment complexes, duplex unit houses, or those in triplicate or quad are low rise, cheaper to maintain and typically affordably constructed. A property manager/owner resides in one unit, renting out the others to defray expenses of ownership and provide for maintenance and common area expenses. Typically most popular in college town markets, this housing type is seeing a comeback.
Despite near constant protestations to the contrary, Americans in general, and southerners in particular, are among the most charitable and generous people on the planet. Creating affordable housing with rent control, publicly owned housing or overly generous housing subsidies have not yet solved this problem in any city. Getting to a solution, as Mayor Bottoms referenced, will likely require a broader, more bottom up response including a wide array of stakeholders, including business, real estate owners/developers, non-profits and NGOs and churches and community based enterprises. There is little more affirming, or capable of building longtime value than owning your own home, and yet we witness Millenials more desirous of renting. As the desired model shifts, we will need to be flexible and willing to build, renovate and re-build, while also requiring the housed (owners and tenants) to become a part of their own solution. We can hardly afford not to.