By Paul Farr
Although most residents likely don’t know it, Clarke County, GA, has one of the widest wealth gaps of any county in the United States, regularly placing among the bottom 20 counties in the nation for wealth equity.
One effect of this disparity is a widespread problem with housing affordability in Athens-Clarke, which was given a “housing-stress” county designation in the year 2000 by the Economic Research Service.
The real estate crash of 2008 and ensuing recession only made the problem worse. As of 2014, the top 5 percent of Clarke residents owned 62 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 60 percent held just 4 percent. Athens-Clarke’s current poverty rate is 35 percent, while the home ownership rate is a mere 39 percent compared to the national rate of 64 percent. Median home value is $152,300, placing the minimum recommended household income for average buyers at $45,690, yet median household income is just $33,116.
Bearing the brunt of the crisis, of course, are very low-income residents, such as those working minimum wage jobs or relying on limited fixed incomes such as Social Security. As of the latest polling date, there were only 4,240 “adequate, affordable, and available” housing units in Athens-Clarke County for more than 10,000 very low-income households.
In response to the ongoing crisis, Athens Area Habitat for Humanity kicked off a campaign in 2018 to spark changes in housing policy in Athens-Clarke, Oconee, and Oglethorpe counties with its “Kinda Tiny Homes” project, which is slated to build four houses in Athens with floorplans between 600 and 800 square feet and LEED certified energy-efficient designs. Now Athens Habitat is co-sponsoring a “Housing Code Hack” with WUGA FM on Wednesday, Aug. 21 to identify sections of local building and zoning codes that need to be updated to improve housing affordability in the Athens Area.
“Affordable housing is generally recognized as requiring no more than 30% of an individual’s or family’s monthly income,” said Spencer Frye, executive director of Athens Area Habitat for Humanity and State Representative for District 118. “When people can’t find decent, affordable housing it affects everyone. For our rental units created through our ReNew Athens program, we hold rents at or below that 30 percent threshold, and our typical renter frees up 48 percent additional disposable income compared to local market rents. That’s money they can now spend on transportation, clothing, food, education, and other necessities, and to start saving to build wealth. That’s a direct impact on our local economy. So, it’s not just about the moral issue of providing homes people can afford, it’s a broader economic issue as well. But Habitat can’t come close to meeting the local demand. Policies need to change.”
The Housing Code Hack will bring together Representative Frye, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, Clarke County Commissioner Ovita Thornton, civil engineer Jon Williams, and home builder and energy activist Michael Songster to examine current building and zoning codes and make recommendations for changes to make homes and apartments more affordable for all residents. Current code restrictions in many areas severely limit or prohibit true “tiny homes”, accessory dwellings, multi-family units, and other potential components of an overall solution to the housing affordability crisis which are being implemented in other cities across the country.
The event will be held in the Appleton Auditorium of the Athens-Clarke County Library at 2025 Baxter Street in Athens and will be recorded for broadcast as a special edition of Athens News Matters, airing at 1 pm on Friday, August 30th, and at noon on Sunday, Sept. 1, on WUGA 91.7 FM. The event is free and open to the public. Moderators Alexia Ridley and Chris Shupe will take question for the panel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, through the WUGA Facebook page, and from the audience at the event. Doors open at 6:10 p.m. The panel discussion begins at 6:30 p.m. and ends at 8 p.m.
For more information, visit wuga.org.
Paul Farr is marketing director for Athens Area Habitat for Humanity