Housing shortage exacerbates affordability problems in Atlanta suburbs

*** VISUAL LEDE *** 020722 SNELLVILLE: Sharanda Hendrickson, a high school nurse, stands in the foyer of her home on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Snellville, discussing how she and her husband had trouble finding housing when their last lease ended in 2020. They are currently renting this home south of Snellville while having to put their dreams of buying a home on hold. Gwinnett leaders face predictions of massive unmet housing demand in Gwinnett County for the next 20 years.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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*** VISUAL LEDE *** 020722 SNELLVILLE: Sharanda Hendrickson, a high school nurse, stands in the foyer of her home on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Snellville, discussing how she and her husband had trouble finding housing when their last lease ended in 2020. They are currently renting this home south of Snellville while having to put their dreams of buying a home on hold. Gwinnett leaders face predictions of massive unmet housing demand in Gwinnett County for the next 20 years. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Newlyweds Sharanda Hendrickson and her husband in 2020 started looking to buy a house close to Central Gwinnett High School, where she works as a nurse.

But in the past decade, the average home price in Gwinnett County has more than doubled and apartment rents have nearly doubled, according to early results from a county study.

The Hendricksons saw houses disappear from the market almost as soon as they were listed. They settled on a three-bedroom rental house on the Rockdale County line, 13 miles from the school, and paid a $1,700 deposit before even seeing it.

Now Hendrickson, 49, is considering a career change so she can make enough to one day own a home.

”I actually love my job but it just does not pay enough for me to live a productive life in Gwinnett County,” she said.

As metro Atlanta grapples with rising housing costs, a crisis is worsening in suburbs once thought of as affordable alternatives to the city. The suburbs’ rapid growth, a shortage of labor and building materials due to the pandemic and a flood of corporate investors are exacerbating a national deficit in housing supply that began at least a decade ago. The resulting prices are pushing low- and moderate-income workers — including service employees, nurses and early-career teachers — out of areas where they are needed, experts and policymakers say.

“At some point, there’s not going to be anywhere for people to go,” said Courtney Anderson, a law professor at Georgia State University whose research focuses on affordable housing.

Meanwhile, an economic boom in metro Atlanta spawned the construction of more high-end homes, Anderson said. Metro Atlanta also has the nation’s highest percentage of houses sold to institutional investors.

As prices increased, people who would normally have bought homes started renting, and rents went up across the area, Anderson said.

Median rents as a proportion of household income exceed the affordability standard of 30% in DeKalb, Clayton and Gwinnett Counties, according to 2019 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The rest of metro Atlanta is not far behind.

Gwinnett’s median gross rent is the highest of metro Atlanta’s core counties, the data shows.

While affordability dominates politics in Atlanta, the county commission in Gwinnett, the second-largest county in Georgia, has stayed relatively uninvolved in the issue. But last month, confronted with ominous preliminary data from a countywide study conducted by KB Advisory Group, commissioners set aside $250,000 to develop a comprehensive affordable housing plan.

ExploreGwinnett to conduct countywide housing study

The Gwinnett study used a model to forecast housing demand, including the types of homes people will likely seek based on age and income. It predicted an average annual demand of 15,091 new or replacement housing units through 2040, compared to the average annual supply of 3,560 from 2010 to 2020.

That equates to 76% of housing demand in the county will going unmet annually through 2040. Only 2% of households earning $50,000 or less would be able to find new or replacement homes in the county during the next 18 years, the findings publicly presented late last year said.

In 2020, almost no homes in Gwinnett sold for less than $200,000, a price that households earning $50,000 could reasonably afford, according to the study.

The average sale price exceeded $328,000 last year for new and existing single-family homes, townhomes and condos in Gwinnett, the study found. Apartment rents averaged more than $1,500.

The county’s growth continues, with more than 957,000 residents now and a projected 1.5 million by 2040.

Demand for single-family homes will remain high but become less attainable as available land shrinks, the study said.

More senior citizens will need homes as baby boomers age and lifespans increase, the study said. Their households, and households generally, are trending smaller, driving up overall demand for housing units.

Meanwhile, slow wage growth and student loan debt continue to bar young people from homeownership.

Many in Gwinnett are so precariously housed that they can’t weather a layoff or a large increase in rent or child care costs, said Heidi Eveleigh, who manages St. Vincent de Paul Georgia’s Motel to Home program. Once they lose housing, finding it again in Gwinnett is nearly impossible, Eveleigh told county commissioners at the hearing. Many land in extended stay motels in the Norcross area, paying between $400 and $500 per week to cram whole families into one room, she said.

“The conversation for affordable housing is now,” Eveleigh said. “These hotels are filling up. They are becoming unaffordable for the families living in them and they will end up in their cars, living and sleeping. ...The lower-income working families in Gwinnett County are counting on you to address the issues you were elected on.”

Gwinnett County recently allocated federal funds to build two mixed-income housing complexes in Lawrenceville for seniors and families, said Lejla Prljaca, executive director of the Lawrenceville Housing Authority.

Prljaca also runs Gwinnett Housing Corp., a nonprofit that uses federal funds to partner with the private sector for affordable developments. The organization will take out second mortgages on 21 houses and about 60 townhouses under construction in unincorporated Gwinnett and sell them to first-time buyers who earn slightly below median wages.

“We need to be able to scale that,” Prljaca said.

She and other nonprofit leaders proposed a housing opportunity bond that would spend $50 million on land and gap financing for thousands of affordable housing units, saying the private sector would contribute 12 times the amount of the bond. Although the money was not included in Gwinnett’s 2022 budget, Prljaca said she was pleasantly surprised the commission is spending $250,000 on a comprehensive plan.

“It’s unprecedented and it’s absolutely a positive and encouraging sign,” she said. “Housing has never been at the forefront in Gwinnett before.”

ExploreMore stories about Gwinnett County

The KB Advisory Group study identified several potential solutions to Gwinnett’s housing crunch, including housing opportunity bonds, grants, loans and land trusts for affordable development. The study also recommended rehabilitating aging, substandard affordable housing units.

District 1 Commissioner Kirkland Carden said he and and District 2 Commissioner Ben Ku have been working with county lawyers on a proposal to increase approved density in developments that set units aside for households earning 60-80% of the area’s median income.

Potential next steps include updating the county’s 2040 plan and amending Unified Development Ordinance to reduce zoning barriers to affordable housing, the study said.

“One strategy alone will not resolve the gap in supply and demand, but I’m encouraged by the meticulous approach we’re taking to address issues like these,” said Nicole Love Hendrickson, county commission chairwoman, in December to legislators. “We’re using research and data to evaluate real solutions to problems facing not just Gwinnett, but the entire nation.”

From 2002 to 2013, when Michael Woodward taught in Gwinnett County Public Schools, he couldn’t afford to live in the county, instead commuting about 30 miles each way from Lithonia to Norcross High. Now he owns a company that renovates houses for low-income people, mostly in DeKalb and Clayton Counties and parts of Fulton where prices are lower.

“We got to think about all our government employees,” he told Gwinnett commissioners at a December budget hearing. “What about our policemen? What about our firemen? What about our library staff?. ...We have to do something about it or we’re going to watch our educational system struggle for recruitment.”

Woodward said his retired sister couldn’t find a place in Gwinnett county on a fixed income of $1,200 a month.

“I really think that is shameful,” he said. “We need to take a hard look at ourselves, because we want to be great, but are we saying we’re great for certain people, and the others we’re just going to toss by the wayside?”

Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.