New home construction has fallen dramatically, even as our population continues to grow. Pair that with a dramatic increase in the price of existing homes for sale and aging neighborhoods, and we have a housing problem on our hands.
Of course, homebuilding is not a government function. But there are things the Board of Commissioners can do to encourage a mix of housing that meets the needs of our residents, and that’s why my fellow commissioners and I spent a full day in early August learning about housing issues. The agenda included a briefing on a comprehensive housing study and covered topics like affordable housing strategies, land use planning, growth management, and zoning tools.
Many of the housing study’s findings were startling.
For instance, households are getting smaller – and many are without children. There’s increasing interest in towns, urban, walkable lifestyles, mixed-use communities, rentals, and affordable workforce housing. Yet, our housing supply is mostly sprawling, single-family homes built between the 1970s and the 2000s following a car-oriented model. Our housing stock in 2020 was comprised of 330,583 units, with 69 percent of those single-family homes, 19 percent apartments, and 8 percent townhomes or condominiums. We clearly need more housing options.
From 1980 to 2007, Gwinnett County and its cities issued an annual average of 8,329 housing permits. That number dropped to 3,104 per year between 2010 and 2019, while Gwinnett continues to attract new residents. We clearly need more housing units.
Further, a third of Gwinnett households earn less than $50,000 annually. Experts say such a household can reasonably afford to buy a $200,000 house or to pay monthly rent of $1,250. Consider that in 2019, 19 percent of new homes sold for $200,000 or less; in 2020, there were no home sales in that range. Regarding rentals, 22 percent of Gwinnett’s current apartments rent for less than $1,250 per month, yet only 2 percent of units built since 2010 rent for that amount. We clearly need more housing that is affordably priced.
So, what can government do about all this? One idea is to change zoning laws away from density-based outcomes to encourage new approaches to housing, parking, street design, and mixed-use communities. There are many creative options for building the kind of housing that’s in demand today – and government regulation should not be a barrier to new approaches.
Another is to help drive desired development by promoting financing options, such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, Tax-Exempt Bonds, Tax Allocation Districts, and the Atlanta Housing Opportunity Bond program. We can also encourage homeownership with homebuyer education programs and down payment assistance, assist current homeowners with rehabilitation programs, and leverage partnerships with nonprofits focused on affordable housing.
In line with one of the housing study’s recommendations, we have already created a new Housing and Community Development Division to directly address the complex housing needs of our residents.
Gwinnett County is not alone in facing the challenge of affordable housing, and I’m personally involved in task forces at the regional and national levels to spot emerging trends, identify solutions, and share best practices. It will take a lot of hard work, creativity, and determination, but I am confident in our collective commitment to opening a door that every one of our residents can call home sweet home.