Working Georgians Lack Housing Options

This week’s Courier Herald column:

This week we’re going to dive deeper into Georgia’s challenge of providing workforce housing. While it’s not a new problem, the recent public remarks by Governor Brian Kemp and the state’s economist Dr. Jeffrey Dorfman have directly tied the lack of available and affordable housing as a hindrance not only to Georgia’s population growth, but also to the state’s economic growth.

The term “workforce housing” begins as a loaded term with its own political connotations, many of which have negative perceptions.  The rising cost of housing – both rental and owner occupied – cuts across many socioeconomic categories.  The challenges are unique to many different groups, and transcend the state’s disparate geographic areas.

That last paragraph is the sanitized way of saying that too many people hear terms like “workforce housing” and “affordable housing” as code words for “poor,” “urban,” “subsidized,” “minorities,” and “renters.”  To be more impolite and blunt, many people resist solving these problems in their communities because they want the people in these groups to live…anywhere else. 

Housing solutions for Georgians that fit in the above categories are a real problem.  The focus here isn’t meant to sidestep the underlying issues with housing for people within these groups, but to indicate that the problem is much more broad, and affects many more Georgians than are normally associated – even stigmatized – with the need for affordable housing options. 

The specific group we’re going to look at today is owner occupied housing.  It’s the kind of housing needed for someone who has chosen their career path, plans to put down roots in their community, and wants to live in the community where they work. 

These are the people who those that intentionally avoid the issues associated with affordable housing claim they want to live in their communities.  It’s also the kind of housing that must be readily available if communities – urban, suburban, and rural – must have available not only if they want to recruit large employers to their area, but to have teachers, police, nurses, and other public servants as neighbors.

Let’s take one of the state’s largest recent economic development wins as a template for this problem, as the salary range and available housing stock in the area of the new factory is a challenge that could be replicated throughout much of the state.  In the economic development package for Rivian to build factory along I-20 between Atlanta and Augusta, they promise the state that the average salary of the 7,500 jobs they will create to qualify for economic development incentives will be $56,000.

The Joint Development Authority that is responsible for bringing this project into east Georgia represents Jasper, Morgan, Newton, and Walton Counties.  The current unemployment rates for each are 2.3%, 2.3%, 2.9%, and 2.4%, respectively.  The workers for this plant will likely have to come from somewhere else.

What size mortgage can someone making $56,000 be qualified for with an FHA mortgage?  This is the kind of mortgage that allows for as little as 3% down, and allows for up to 31% of gross wages to be used for a mortgage payment.  It comes out to roughly $200,000 at current mortgage rates.

A quick scan of Zillow for all four counties indicates that there are approximately 30 homes priced under $210,000.  7,500 workers are about to be added to an area that currently offers less than three dozen houses for sale in their prospective price range.

This problem isn’t unique to Rivian, nor to people seeking our “new” jobs.  I was talking to a State Representative at the announcement for Hyundai’s new Bryan County plant just over a year ago.  He represents a district to the west of the factory, composed of very rural counties.  The housing pressures added by the new plant were not yet a market force.

When I brought up the question of where the workers would live and where the housing growth would come from, he offered up his own assessment that the problem was already current.  He said he could name 3 teachers from just one school in his own home county that had to move away, as they couldn’t find suitable housing near where they taught. lists the average public school teacher pay in Georgia is $54,205. They list the average for a Licensed Practical Nurse at $49,983.  A state patrol officer in his second year on the job makes $56,583. 

The problem of workplace housing isn’t constrained to “poor people”.  It affects working Georgians, those already here and those we’re trying to attract. 

We’re continuing to create new jobs for workers.  We’re not yet creating the houses in the communities where they intend to make their homes.


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