Our zip codes – the places where we live – too often determine what we can do with our lives. We all want the opportunity to make the most of our potential, no matter where we come from. But ensuring that opportunity — especially in a city such as Atlanta, which was recently named as having one of the largest income inequality gaps in the entire county — is another matter. To give each of us a fair shot at success, no matter where we live, we need homes that are not only affordable but also connected to good schools, dependable public transportation, and strong businesses. To make that possibility a reality, we need to understand the challenges of affordable housing in our region — and what we can do about it.
Right now, our housing system falls short for all of us. Entire areas of Atlanta are without housing that is affordable to those with modest income. There are also areas that have plenty of affordable housing but that lack vital resources and community amenities, like stores to buy healthy food. This creates serious problems for all kinds of communities and residents. When rents rise but wages stay the same, workers that we all depend on can’t afford to remain in their homes. They move elsewhere — and, without a diverse workforce, our economy suffers. Our region’s economic vitality depends on policies that allow for housing stock at all price points.
Our leaders need to work together to solve the collective problem of high housing costs. What affects one part of our region affects us all. When housing costs are high, people spend too much time commuting from home to work. Lower housing costs make sure that people can live where they work, which means less traffic and cleaner air for all. We need to make sure that good, affordable homes and other critical resources are available not only in a few desirable neighborhoods but in all communities. If we work together across Atlanta, we will arrive at the kinds of solutions and community designs that make life better for us all.
How did this situation come to be?
What does it take to afford rent in Atlanta?
According to Sarah Kirsch at ULI Atlanta, affordable housing is not a thing, but a ratio — a family’s income relative to its housing costs. To have sufficient money for food, transportation and healthcare, and hopefully accumulate a little savings, a family should not spend more than 30 percent of its income on housing.(iv)
This 30 percent rule is a federal housing metric used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development across the country. Georgia residents need to earn $17.53/hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. At minimum wage, you'd have to work 97 hours per week to afford that apartment.(v)
The Saporta Report, an Atlanta-based online newsletter, lays out the issues and explains that Area Median Income (AMI) is a key factor in determining the ratio for affordable housing. AMI sets the rent of a subsidized residential unit and determines who can qualify for that rent level, based on income and family size. Learn more about AMI and how it is calculated.
Where do Atlanta families challenged with housing costs live?
Atlanta families challenged with housing costs live all over the metro area. While some areas of metro Atlanta are certainly more expensive than others, families at every economic level need to live in all areas of the city. If our community takes steps to sync local housing costs with local incomes, people will live closer to where they work. We’d likely see a range of surprising benefits, from less traffic to greater involvement in schools.
How is transportation a challenge for low-income families?
Families must often move farther from their jobs to find quality affordable housing. This then adds the burden of additional transportation expenses to the family’s budget requirements. This reflects a trend seen throughout the Southeast. The average apartment rental cost one-half mile from Atlanta’s public transit stations is 10% higher than the regional average.(vi)
Why don’t we just build the affordable units we need?
Building affordable units is expensive and not always financially feasible. According to the Urban Institute, the problem is often a financing gap:
- Development costs a lot of money. Developers rely on loans and other sources to fund construction before people move in and start paying rent. But developers can only get those loans and equity sources if the development will produce enough revenue to pay back the loans and pay returns to investors.
- The gap between the amount a building is expected to produce from rents and the amount developers will need to pay lenders and investors can stop affordable housing development before it even begins, leaving few options for the millions of low-income families looking for safe, affordable homes.
Why should I care about affordable housing?
The private sector and government both have a role to play, but we need more voices at the table to better fulfill the promise of fair and thriving communities. With your voice, we can help make sure that Atlanta’s communities see all the pieces needed and assemble those pieces so our communities are fair and functional places — where people can find meaningful work, affordable homes, quality learning opportunities, and everything else that promotes well-being.
What are local municipalities doing to support affordable housing?
- Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made a $1 billion dollar promise to support affordable housing in the City of Atlanta. She recently hired a Chief Housing Officer to establish goals for the city’s affordable housing strategy and coordinate work among public partners.
- House ATL was formed in January of 2018 to work toward a comprehensive and coordinated housing affordability action plan in the City of Atlanta. HouseATL is an open taskforce made possible by ULI Atlanta, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Central Atlanta Progress, Center for Civic Innovation, and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. These partners engaged more than 200 civic leaders in working toward actionable recommendations and are tracking progress throughout 2019.
- Local Housing Initiatives throughout the region:
- ULI Atlanta conducted a study with Bleakly Advisory Group to help define what affordable housing is and create a vision and strategy for the Atlanta region. See the Affordable Atlanta study.
- CATLYST – Atlanta Regional Commission is leading the creation of a regional housing strategy called CATLYST to help our region’s communities identify solutions to specific housing issues. Co-chaired by Jim Durrett and Meaghan Shannon-Vlkovic, CATLYST is using the framework from ULI’s Bleakly study to address affordability issues.
How do we go forward?
- Focus on access to jobs and transportation. Many Atlanta residents live far from employment centers and face high transportation costs, making it difficult to manage any increase in housing costs.
- Increase housing production with innovative and cost-saving approaches for new construction. One creative solution is to think about products like accessory dwelling units, duplexes, and co-living models. ULI Atlanta recently published a toolkit that focuses on innovative design solutions to spur affordable housing production.
- Recognize that developing inclusive communities requires housing at all price points. We need to address the full range of affordability (0 – 120% of AMI), while recognizing that the need is greatest for housing affordable to households earning below $38,000, or 60 percent of the metro area’s median household income.
- Find innovative ways to extend the life of existing affordable housing through a strong housing preservation strategy.
Join the conversation
Join the 100 Great Ideas Atlanta Facebook Group to hear and share ideas for the best way to improve housing affordability in metro Atlanta.
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If you have questions, comments or suggestions on the presentation of this background information, please contact Jannan Thomas at email@example.com.
And thank you to our sponsor JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation for sponsoring this campaign!
- (i) ARC Research; House ATL website
- (ii) Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, House ATL website
- (iii) ULI 2018
- (iv) AJC News; Opinion: LINK trip opened local eyes on need for affordable housing
- (v) Out of Reach 2018 - The High Cost of Housing, JP Morgan Chase & Company
- (vi) TransFormation Alliance website
- (vii) Anne Carpenter, Affordable Housing Overview: Atlanta, pg 13, PowerPoint presentation, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
- (viii) Sarah Kirsch (2018, July 20), Opinion: LINK Trip Opened Local Eyes on Need For Affordable Housing, Atlanta Journal Constitution