November 28, 2018

Strengthen Public-Private and Cross-Sector Partnerships to Face Atlanta’s Growing Housing Challenge

Denise Miller is an Atlanta resident who knows first hand the importance of affordable housing programs

By: Meaghan Shannon-Vlkovic, Enterprise Community Partners and Daphne Bond-Godfrey, ULI Atlanta

While its traffic-snarled highways are infamous across the nation, the Atlanta region has historically been commended as an affordable city offering more space to live and a strong job market. The latter quality of life attributes often outweighed the major congestion that daily Atlantans faced. That story is changing as cost of housing increases and is compounded by stagnant wages that aren’t keeping up with housing costs.

Generally, rent is considered affordable if a household spends no more than 30 percent of its income on housing. Data from Zillow indicates that in 2016 almost half of all renters in the Atlanta Metro Region spent more than that, making them severely cost-burdened. Making things worse, gentrification, redevelopment, expiring rental subsidies, and high eviction rates are pricing long-time Atlanta residents out of their neighborhoods, forcing them away from their connections and jobs.

Conversations about housing affordability challenges are continuing to get louder – in fact, it was seen as the top issue in the recent Mayor’s race last year. If Atlanta wants to remain an affordable and dynamic region, regional leaders in business and government need to develop bold strategies to expand the supply of housing that is connected to both transportation options and jobs.

Rising Cost of Housing is Fueling Speculation and Displacement

In some neighborhoods, the pressure to move is particularly strong. Long-time homeowners receive multiple calls a day from investors seeking to buy properties, flip them, and sell them at a much higher price than current residents can afford. In other cases, families who rent are told that their rent will increase three-fold in the coming month and are given the choice of coming up with the money or packing their bags.

In 2012, long-time Atlanta resident and college graduate Denise Miller lost both her mother and brother. The stress and depression caused by this sudden loss caused her to lose her job and home. After becoming homeless, Ms. Miller was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and admitted to Phoenix House, an affordable supportive living residence. This opportunity provided her with the platform to get back on her feet. Without her affordable apartment at Phoenix House, her recovery and stability would be far more difficult—and she would be far more likely to experience homelessness again.

Ms. Miller is just one snapshot of the complex challenges that many Atlanta residents who are elderly, have disabilities or just have lower incomes face. Whether the experience is homelessness or displacement, too many people are being squeezed out of their once-affordable neighborhoods.

As a region, we are at a point where we need to decide what kind of place we want to be. Other cities with strong job markets like San Francisco, New York and Washington D.C. have become notorious for their high housing prices, which exacerbate homelessness and prevent all but the wealthy from living in neighborhoods connected to good jobs and schools.

ULI Atlanta estimates the Atlanta region (which includes the five core counties of Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett) needs 5,000 new units annually just to accommodate growth, and 10,000 homes annually to begin to make a dent in the problem. Initial estimates suggest we need $250 million per year over a 10-year period – a $2.3 billion dollar investment to preserve and produce affordable units at this scale.

Housing is Foundational to Making Antlantan's Lives Better

To keep the Atlanta region affordable, local governments, businesses, and community groups need to come together to create funding, processes, and policies that ensure we remain a ‘City for All’.  Diversity of housing options that do not place an undue cost burden on our residents is key to a vibrant and competitive economy. Moreover, quality, affordable housing is foundational to making Atlantans lives better – improving access to jobs, services, healthcare, and educational opportunities. We also have an opportunity to do it differently this time, working across sectors and with communities to develop solutions.

Fortunately, local leaders have already begun building the partnerships necessary to expand opportunity and access across the region. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has pledged $1 billion in public funding to support more affordable housing, and a new public-private taskforce, HouseATL, was launched in January 2018 and is committed to a collaborative, cross-sector process for expanding the supply of affordable housing in Atlanta. HouseATL recently set a goal of investing $500 million in public resources and $500 million in private resources to build or preserve 24,000 affordable homes in Atlanta over the next eight to ten years.

While these initiatives address the challenges faced by families struggling to pay rent, other investments are necessary to help families who have savings but cannot afford homeownership due to escalating home prices. To address this particular issue, the Neighborhood LIFT program, sponsored by Wells Fargo and NeighborWorks America, provides down payment assistance to homebuyers in the Atlanta region, who can qualify to receive $15,000 in down payment assistance and closing costs. Since 2012, Neighborhood LIFT has helped create more than 17,150 homeowners.

Even with all these efforts, there is more that can, and must, be done. Regulatory reform that makes building affordable housing faster and easier, doing away with NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) ordinances, and harnessing innovative private sector funds such as impact investing and Opportunity Zones help create more tools to expand opportunity for families in the Atlanta region.

Continued public-private, cross-sector partnerships will be necessary to make progress in addressing access and affordability. A more flexible financing and regulatory environment along with more capacity in affordable housing development are all necessary to address Atlanta’s growing housing challenge.

Existing initiatives–including HouseATL, which has been touted as the “most collaborative group of organizations advancing housing affordability in the City”–are an encouraging sign that Atlanta’s leaders, community institutions, and businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of housing with transportation and job opportunity—and that there is a willingness to make the investments necessary to make these promises a reality. Atlanta’s continued affordability challenges and dynamism rely on it.

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