The only “magic bullet” for poverty in Athens is well-paying jobs, said Habitat for Humanity Director Spencer Frye at last week’s “Code Hack” forum on affordable housing, co-sponsored by WUGA-FM. But, he said, home-building regulations that have multiplied since the days of segregation continue to make homes less affordable.
Habitat believes that home ownership “is one of the best ways to create generational wealth,” Frye said, and it also helps to solve “a lot of the social issues that we tend to politically argue about." Habitat builds homes that qualified low-income residents can buy, but a “long list” of government requirements raise the cost of building those homes.
“When you [add regulations] bit by bit, it doesn’t seem like a big deal,” he said, “but over time, just trying to maintain a certain quality of life in our community, we’ve put housing out of reach for a major part of our community.”
Frye is also a Democratic state representative who supported a bill in last spring’s legislative session that would have stripped local governments of their ability to regulate the design of houses. It was opposed by local governments, including Athens-Clarke County.
Until the late 1940s—when the Supreme Court mooted racially exclusionary covenants in property deeds—“hundreds and hundreds” of Clarke County deeds specified that no person of color could own or occupy those properties, Girtz said. Then, he added, minimum selling prices were substituted to prevent lower-income people from buying the homes. Also, minimum house sizes were added “to preclude certain populations from being able to move into the community,” Frye said. Single-family zoning “popped up as a reaction to integration,” added Oconee County landscape architect Jon Williams, who heads W&A Engineering. More recently, “there’s a whole couple of pages” of design standards, something that “adds cost” to homes, he said.
Accessory dwellings, or “mother-in-law apartments,” are also not allowed, and Athens has one of the nation’s most stringent laws limiting how many unrelated persons (only two) can share a home in a single-family zone (intended to eliminate “party house” student rentals).
Government incentives are needed to encourage builders to build affordable homes, Williams said, including incentives for “redeveloping” abandoned big-boxes, which costs more than building on undeveloped land. Simplifying home-building regulations could certainly help, like permitting “flag lots” with little street frontage or allowing multiple homes on a single driveway. Building additional homes on (or just off of) existing streets “is going to be an absolute necessity,” he said, to make efficient use of existing infrastructure. “In older neighborhoods, there are lots of houses built behind other houses,” added homebuilder Michael Songster, and “it works great” when done well. Land costs are the biggest contributor to home costs, he said.
Many people are interested in ‘tiny houses’ and, in any case, don’t want a big house to clean and maintain. That includes military vets and seniors—“they’re living longer; people are struggling more,” said Thornton. A minimum house size (currently 600 square feet in ACC) is unnecessary, Songster said. “Just get rid of it.”
The discussion will be broadcast as part of “Athens News Matters” on Aug. 30 at 1 p.m. and Sept. 1 at noon.