Atlanta’s suburbs are facing an affordable housing crunch, too

The Saffolds are stuck in a trap.

The couple, in their early 50s, are hard workers, logging long hours on the overnight shift at a manufacturing plant. They pay their bills on time, try to save a little.

But because they can’t squirrel away enough money for a downpayment on an apartment, and with the lack of affordable housing in metro Atlanta, the Saffolds are trapped paying a majority of their salaries to live in one of Gwinnett County’s extended stay hotels.

They’ve been there nearly a year now.

“The majority of the people here are everyday working people,” said Mrs. Saffold, who asked that her first name not be used due to privacy and safety concerns. “I’ve met them, I’ve talked to them. Just like us.”

She’s right; they’re not alone. Thousands of people like the Saffolds are examples of a burgeoning housing affordability crisis in metro Atlanta’s suburbs.

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A one-of-a-kind survey recently conducted at extended stay motels in Norcross — the epicenter of such facilities in Gwinnett, Atlanta's most populous suburb — produced results that surprised even those working in the housing field.

Eighty-four percent of the residents spoken to said they considered the motels their place of residence; nearly two-thirds said they’d lived at their current location or similar ones for a year or more. Like the Saffolds, almost all of them had steady employment.

“I think what is becoming clear now is this is not just an Atlanta problem,” said Aixa Pascual, a co-author of the Norcross study. “This is a problem in the whole metro area.”

Many of the folks who are living in such facilities aren’t the poorest of the poor, but working-class people driven to do so because of bad breaks, an unexpected doctor’s visit or car trouble.

Those financial breaks are enough to bust their budgets because, like so many others, they’re paying so much of their income toward housing costs — a product of the lagging supply of quality apartments and homes offered at moderate prices.

“Affordability’s relative,” said Lejla Prljaca, executive director of the Lawrenceville Housing Authority and an author of the Norcross study. “We’re not advocating for more public housing or Section 8 housing, but for there to be more of a connection to the type of demand that is currently in the county.”

Whether or not that connection is forged could have wide-reaching implications. Much of the recent discussions about affordable housing in the Atlanta region has focused on the city proper, preserving inexpensive options and keeping longtime residents in place as an influx of high-end developments sprouts up near the Beltline and in other booming intown areas.

It’s a different kind of battle outside the Perimeter. But there’s attention needed there too, said John O’Callaghan, CEO of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership.

“I believe it’s the number one economic development issue effecting Atlanta,” he said.

According to a report issued last year by the Urban Land Institute-Atlanta, just over 340,000 households in metro Atlanta’s five core counties were both earning less than 80% of the area’s median income ($56,000) and spending more than 30% of that income on housing.

That group is considered cost-burdened — and represents the region’s existing affordable housing need, the ULI said.

In Gwinnett, whose median gross rent of $1,043 was the highest in metro Atlanta, about 53% of renters are considered cost-burdened, according to a 2018 report from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Regionwide, that figure hovers within a couple percentage points of 50%.

Nearly 30 percent off all Gwinnett homeowners are cost-burdened as well, according to a March report from the ARC.

The issues are many 

Metro Atlanta rents have grown by about 10 percent since 2010, while wages have remained largely stagnant. On the construction side, the costs of building materials, land and regulatory obligations are high.

Most suburbs also have zoning restrictions like minimum square footage and lot sizes that further drive developers toward higher-dollar homes, townhouses and apartment complexes in order to maximize profits.

"The demand is always there on the lower end. It seems to always be there no matter what," said Mark Richardson, president of Richardson Housing Group, which has built homes in and around Gwinnett for nearly 50 years. "But it's difficult to make money at those prices."

There are many potential ways to attack the problem, none of them easy — and none that would have much of a chance of working all on their own.

Developers would have to be given incentives to build more moderately-priced housing, whether through a loosening of zoning ordinances or through tax credits of some sort.

Existing landlords and property managers would have to be more flexible with potential tenants, whether they have past credit problems or, like so many residents of extended stay motels, could pay their rent but struggle to save enough to come up with deposits.

Nonprofits and other organizations would have to find more ways to help more people and wages would have to go up.

“A lot of people just need, like, a jump start,” said Mrs. Saffold.