Clarissa Smith, a supervisor for a custodial crew, meticulously cares for her own yard in northwest Atlanta, where she became a first-time homebuyer about seven years ago. Every original buyer in the subdivision received help from Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. But finding affordable housing in the city has become increasingly challenging. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Rising land prices pressure Habitat homes

As the hunt for affordable housing in Atlanta gets tougher, Habitat for Humanity International’s Atlanta affiliate is feeling the crunch and planning to build in bulk.

Slots to attend its latest information sessions for prospective homeowners filled up within three minutes of being posted. Nearly 90 families attended the November meeting, spilling into an overflow room.

Atlanta Habitat already has lined up all the new homebuyers it can handle for next year. And it has another 333 pre-screened potential buyers just waiting to be allowed to apply.

Meanwhile, local Habitat officials say it is increasingly difficult to find lots priced low enough to build affordable homes on, even as armies of construction volunteers and sponsors keep construction and other costs down.

That’s one reason leaders are opting for scale, which they say will help control costs.

Atlanta Habitat for Humanity is launching its largest subdivision ever, with more than 100 homes planned on the city’s southside. Construction on houses — priced from $150,000 to $170,000 — is slated to start in the fall of 2020. Habitat expects some of the houses to be priced somewhat higher in partnership with a traditional developer. The median home price in metro Atlanta is $269,000, according to the Atlanta Realtors Association.

Habitat leaders say the size of the project will make building more efficient and help cover the cost of adding amenities it hasn’t provided locally before, including walking trails, a central gathering area and perhaps a playground that would be open to people from outside the subdivision.

The project, called Browns Mill Village, will have the largest concentration of local Habitat first-time homeowners. They are a sliver of the overall homebuying pool in metro Atlanta. But they highlight the struggle many Atlantans face amid ballooning intown prices.

Atlanta Habitat for Humanity leaders, including housing and neighborhood engagement vice president Wesley Brooks and chief executive officer Lisa Gordon, have announced plans put more than 100 homes in a new southside development called Browns Mill Village. The nonprofit is facing growing challenges as local real estate prices increase and demands grow for more affordable housing. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We are looking at ways to preserve affordable housing long term, especially in neighborhoods where we see values rise at an exponential rate,” said Lisa Gordon, Atlanta Habitat’s chief executive officer.

Atlanta is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the nation, said Dan Immergluck, a professor with Georgia State University’s Urban Studies Institute. Home prices and rents keep rising. The pressure has been moving farther south in the metro area, jumping from one neighborhood to the next.

That’s made it harder to retain affordable prices for people Immergluck described as working class and middle class.

Five or 10 years ago Habitat could buy lots in neighborhoods where people were still a bit skeptical of buying. Now, property speculators have swooped in and changed the market.

Prices are rising quickly, Gordon said. That puts pressure on how many homes the chapter can build.

At the same time, interest in Habitat homes is booming, said Wesley Brooks, the organization’s vice president of housing and neighborhood engagement.

An improved economy means more Atlantans have jobs and can qualify for Habitat houses, he said. Habitat also has increased marketing and worked to zap common misimpressions. One fallacy: that Habitat’s strategy is to give free houses to homeless people.

The Atlanta affiliate of Habitat for Humanity has built entire subdivisions for new homeowners before, including Verbena Place (shown here) in the city’s northwest. Now, the nonprofit is preparing for its largest subdivision, a more than 100-home development called Browns Mill Village on the city’s southside. MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Instead, the nonprofit’s average homebuyer is a single working mom with two kids and making $32,000 a year. Buyers must pay back Habitat’s interest-free home loan.

They are expected to have stable income and be willing to put in sweat equity: 250 hours of service, including helping to build their own homes. They also take 12 classes on home ownership and financial literacy. In return, they get a house — usually three bedrooms — for an affordable price.

Habitat in recent years has built or rebuilt about 50 homes annually. It expects to keep that pace as it starts Browns Mill Village in the Orchard Park community about three miles northeast of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The development is expected to be at least twice the size of the largest subdivision the local chapter built before. Much of what Atlanta Habitat had focused on previously was adding a house here and there on empty lots within or near existing neighborhoods.

Coreen Dent, who lives near the Browns Mill Village site and leads the neighborhood group Southside Concerned Citizens, said she’s optimistic about what’s to come.

Habitat has been busy in her section of Atlanta since the 1990s. She expects the new development will boost nearby property values and, with the addition of homeowners rather than renters, add stability to local schools.

“I’m expecting to see people who are responsible, who have some sort of discipline as far as homeowners go. People who know how to budget their money and stay in their homes,” Dent said.

That’s pretty much what homeowners say who live in other Atlanta neighborhoods built by Habitat.

Lawanda Gibson, a childcare curriculum coordinator, became a first-time homebuyer when she moved into an Atlanta Habitat for Humanity subdivision in the city’s northwest. Since then, she said, she’s finished a bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s degree. She and neighbors look out for one another, she said. “We all came from the same struggle.” MATT KEMPNER / AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We know what we come from,” said Lawanda Gibson, who along with hundreds of Habitat volunteers built her home in the Verbena Place subdivision in northwest Atlanta. The community has about 50 Habitat homes. “We all came from the same struggle. Therefore we all value what we have.”

Verbena’s homes look better taken care of than some in the area, she said. It’s a stark contrast to her previous neighborhood that was dominated by people in short-term rentals, Gibson said. “There wasn’t a lot of pride because it didn’t belong to them.”

Gibson’s service commitment included helping to build her next-door neighbor’s home and a second one three doors down. On her home, she painted, spread plastic in the crawl space, installed windows, laid the front yard sod, insulated the attic and more. She has a deep connection to what she built.

“When my son slams a door, I’m like, ‘Look, I put up that door.’”

She and other neighbors say that when one of them falls behind on yard work, others will step in and help. In the three years since she’s been living in a Habitat home, she’s earned her master’s degree. She’s an education coordinator overseeing childcare curriculum at the main federal building downtown.

Kenny Wright grew up nearby and lives in a non-Habitat home that belonged to his mom before she passed away. He said he would have sold the property, which needs renovation, had it not been for the change in the community sparked by Habitat and its new homeowners. Now, he’s putting money into fixing the house.

“It has increased the value and civility and the look of the neighborhood,” Wright said. “It brings back stability for the neighborhood.”

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