Opinion: LINK trip opened local eyes on need for affordable housing

Metro Atlanta has a well-earned reputation for being the economic engine of the Southeast, and a big factor driving that growth is our region’s affordability. This competitive advantage, however, is in danger of eroding as housing costs rise.

Consider these numbers from a recent report prepared by the Bleakly Advisory Group for the Urban Land Institute’s Atlanta District Council:

  • The median household income in metro Atlanta increased just one percent per year between 2010 and 2015.
  • At the same time, new home prices increased 3.7 percent annually and apartment rents increased even faster – 4.5 percent for units built before 2012 and 9.5 percent for newer units.
  • More than 340,000 households in the region's five core counties are considered to be in need of affordable housing.

Affordable housing is not a thing, but a ratio – a family’s income relative to their housing costs. For a family to have sufficient money for food, transportation and healthcare, and hopefully sock away a little savings, they should not spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Our region is far from alone in wrestling with affordable housing issues. We’ve all seen the headlines about soaring housing costs in places like Seattle and New York City.

For now, metro Atlanta remains one of the nation’s more affordable regions, but the trends are deeply concerning. We can’t succeed if housing is truly affordable only for the more-affluent.

The good news: the affordable housing issue is taking on increasing urgency among our region’s leaders. And we still have time to act before it reaches a critical level.

A few weeks ago, I joined more than 100 metro Atlanta leaders who traveled to San Diego for the Atlanta Regional Commission’s annual LINK trip. LINK provides a terrific opportunity to learn how another region tackles pressing issues and discuss how to address our own challenges back home.

Our agenda featured top-of-mind topics like regional transit and immigration. But to our surprise, housing affordability emerged as a central theme in all of our conversations. It didn’t matter whether the topic was workforce development, education, or the military’s impact on the region.

Perhaps this should have been expected. After all, quality, affordable housing is foundational to quality of life.

The housing affordability issue is particularly acute in San Diego. We were told that trainees at the region’s military bases often live across the border in Mexico, where they can find housing that doesn’t bust their budgets.

San Diego provides a cautionary tale. That region’s leaders told us the housing crisis at times feels insurmountable. They also said Atlanta is seven to 10 years behind San Diego – and that we have a chance to take a different path.

To avoid San Diego’s fate, the Atlanta region must collectively commit to regional housing solutions. To that end, ULI Atlanta and its members have developed a set of guiding principles. A successful housing strategy should:

  • Focus on access to jobs and transportation. Many Atlanta residents live far from employment centers and face high transportation costs, making it difficult to absorb any increase in housing costs.
  • Increase housing production by incorporating innovative and cost-saving approaches for new construction.
  • Recognize that developing inclusive communities requires housing at all price points. The need is greatest for housing that is 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 inventory by implementing a robust housing preservation strategy.

During the LINK trip, I facilitated a discussion about affordable housing among metro Atlanta leaders. I gave an overview of the situation, warts and all, but I also talked about exciting things happening at home to tackle this issue.

For example, civic leaders in the city of Atlanta have formed HouseATL, a taskforce charged with identifying the policies and funding needed to address housing affordability. And just a few weeks ago, more than 200 people attended a meeting of the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum to explore the issue from a regional perspective.

We may look back at this year’s LINK trip as a critical moment for metro Atlanta. We heard how important affordable housing is to a community’s success, and we learned that we must act soon or face costly consequences down the road.

I’m confident that metro Atlanta will rise to the challenge. We have the ideas, the skills, and the leadership to make sure that affordable housing is something available to the entire community, not just the few.