Housing access top of mind for Clayton voters

Construction workers continue construction on a Habitat for Humanity project, where local leaders are aiming to boost available of affordable housing, in the 2000 block of Rockspray Court, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Hampton. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)



Construction workers continue construction on a Habitat for Humanity project, where local leaders are aiming to boost available of affordable housing, in the 2000 block of Rockspray Court, Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Hampton. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

For the past four years, things have gone from bad to worse for Chalonda Bennett.

In 2020, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. This Easter, she suffered a heart attack. Her health problems have meant she has been unable to work consistently, she said, and as a result, she and her five children were unable to afford to stay in their Clayton County home.

“Everything went up,” said Bennett, 43. Her monthly rent doubled from $1,000 to $2,000 after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

By the time her disability application was accepted by Social Security, she was several months behind and her family was homeless. Currently, Bennett and her family bounce between staying with friends and living in a hotel. Although her cancer is in remission, her financial problems persist.

“I ended up losing my car in the process of trying to pay for a hotel room,” she said.

As Bennett and other voters in Clayton look ahead to the presidential election in November, they want candidates to address how unattainable housing has become and the tighter squeeze many are feeling in their wallets for everyday items.

Voting rights activists credit the county’s record turnout four years ago with flipping Georgia for Democrats for the first time in decades. Clayton has consistently been a Democratic stronghold, but voters who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Georgia’s top Democratic officials are taking that warning to heart.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff announced $500,000 in federal funding to boost Habitat for Humanity construction in Lovejoy. A few days later, the two Georgia Democratic senators announced $80 million in federal support for public housing authorities in the state.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff (right), D-Ga, stands with new homeowner Tanjills Sawyer at a press conference in Hampton on Monday, May 6, 2024. The conference, which announced federal funds for housing in Clayton County, took place in front of Sawyer’s house, built by Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity. (Arvin Temkar / AJC)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

How Clayton ended up with a housing crisis “is not a different story than what you would find elsewhere in Georgia,” said Michael Waller, the executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting low-income families. “The difference is that Clayton County starts out at a greater disadvantage.”

As the city of Atlanta prepared to host the 1996 Olympics, it tore down much of its public housing, forcing many people out of their homes. That led many of them to resettle further south in Clayton, Waller said.

“Over time, the county became (home to) more and more low-income residents, but no resources followed,” he said.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia in 2020, Clayton was already facing an affordable housing crisis. Rents rose during the pandemic, and the eviction moratorium at the time was not “consistently applied” across the state, Waller said. Then private equity investments poured in, and counties have varying degrees of access to emergency rental assistance.

More organizations are providing housing support in Clayton, said Tiffany Cadogan, development director for Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity. Within the next year, Habitat will build five more homes in the Lovejoy neighborhood, and federal funding will pay for at least two of those houses.

“When it comes to the point where the majority of the population cannot afford a home, it’s a problem,” Cadogan said. “Our housing actually gives an opportunity for some of these individuals.”

Bennett said she knows many other families living in hotels unable to find permanent housing.

“To be honest, a lot of them can’t really find anywhere to stay unless they find a private owner (willing to give them a lower rate),” she said. “On top of that, you’ve got to be able to make enough to pay first month’s rent and last month’s rent.”

When Donald Trump was president, Bennett said, “it seemed like more money was flowing,” but she doesn’t blame the economic shift on President Joe Biden.

She said she’s still undecided in the upcoming election. “I’ll support anybody that’s going to make changes,” she said. “I would like to see more affordable housing for families, especially if you’re disabled.”

Waller said voices like hers are powerful.

“Find your elected official and ask them at every opportunity, ‘What’s the plan? What have you done? What are you planning on doing?’ ” he said. “They will make it a priority if you make it a priority because they want your vote.”