The supply of affordable housing units is at extreme lows in Georgia in the wake of the pandemic, leading to higher rents and greater homelessness among single adults and families. 

Advocates across the state are calling for action, although some proposed solutions – like calls to repeal Georgia’s long-standing ban on rent control – have proven to be a nonstarter.

Across the state, the number of units deemed affordable with rents below $600, dropped significantly by about 67,000 residences between 2019 and 2021, according to a report released this year from the Joint Center of Housing Studies for Harvard University. Monthly rent of $600 is considered the maximum amount affordable to households bringing in $24,000 or less a year. 

Georgia is among the states with one of the most severe losses in low-cost rental stock in the country, according to the study

Katie Byers, the director of St. Anne Community Outreach, a nonprofit based in Columbus, that offers assistance with rent and utilities, said part of the reason for the decrease in  affordable homes is because many landlords sold their properties after the pandemic.

“The benefit of selling the house really went up right after COVID. Like everybody was putting their house up for sale,” Byers said. “So when the market went really crazy, you know, I think a lot of landlords decided, Okay, I’m gonna go ahead and liquidate my properties. And I think across the board, rising prices on everything just followed right along with that.” 

Since the federal moratorium on evictions ended in 2021, and the more than $500 million in federal pandemic rental aiddried up, tenants across the state started to feel the financial squeeze again. And a growing number of families are resorting to life in extended-stay hotels long-term or temporarily couch surf from one place to another.

Individuals and families that are not technically homeless, meaning they do not reside in uninhabitable conditions – like outside on the street, in a vehicle or a shelter – face steeper challenges when seeking assistance for permanent housing.

“That’s a hard group to help because, our program, for example, really is to prevent evictions. They’ve already been evicted,” Byers said. “And then the folks that you would think would help them would be the homeless programs, but they don’t qualify because they’re not homeless. So they get kind of caught in between. So I see that as a group that’s really growing.”

Cathy Williams, founding director of NeighborWorks America, a federally funded affordable housing nonprofit with a chapter in Columbus, said this forces families to make some very difficult decisions. 

“Either they’re going to live in slum property because that’s all they can afford,” Williams said. “Or they’re going to live in something more than they can afford. And if anything happens in the family unit, if a child gets sick or the car breaks down, they often have to leave.”

“The third choice is that you go into a non-traditional housing accommodation, whether it’s moving back home, or moving in with friends, couch surfing or living in your car. Those are basically the decisions that have to be made by our families that don’t get paid enough,” Williams said. 

In addition to fewer affordable units and the winding down of pandemic assistance, the dynamic between landlords and tenants plays a significant role.

Byers and other nonprofit leaders said even though most landlords do their best to be flexible with their tenants, having to front property expenses when renters cannot afford payments makes many landlords reluctant to renew leases.

As a result, many landlords are letting tenant’s leases convert to a month-to-month status, which leaves tenants paying sometimes $300 above the amount listed on their lease. And on top of paying higher rents, utility rates are rising too, Byers said.

Already this summer Georgia Power’s customers have been hit with a 12% rate increase, with more hikes expected as the company flips the switch on its budget-busting Plant Vogtle nuclear plant expansion. 

About 30% of people requesting assistance from St. Anne are on a fixed income from either disability or Social Security income. Many of them are living on less than $800 a month, and raising utility prices by $50 could be enough to send someone into eviction status, she said.

The loss of affordable housing in Georgia is an important trend to watch, said Tom Murphy, the director of communications for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The rate of unsheltered homelessness has been climbing since 2017, and the pandemic exacerbated the growth, he said. However, this is being felt across the nation.

According to data in the most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 18 out of every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the U.S., people living in families with children accounted for 28% of this sample.

In Atlanta, with one of the highest homeless populations in the state, rents are consistently high. 

According to an report, the median rent in Atlanta is $1,529, making the state capital one of the most expensive large cities in the country, despite the cost of rent going down by about 4.1% the past year. 

John O’Callaghan, president and CEO of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, a nonprofit that develops and finances affordable housing, said Atlanta remained an affordable city, especially for Black and brown families, even through decades of growth. But, after the foreclosure crisis in 2008, many investors bought up properties and drove housing costs up when the economy recovered pricing many families of color out of their neighborhoods.

Advocacy groups for affordable housing including the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Housing Justice League and the Georgia For All Coalition, seek to lift the 39-year-old state ban on rent control as a possible solution. 

Rent control is a government policy that would cap the amount landlords can charge for rent, but efforts to get rent control through the Georgia Legislature has historically failed. A bill filed this year by Atlanta Democrat Sen. Donzella James went nowhere. 

“A lot of times when politicians are running for office when they’re running in elections, they often run on the platform of affordable housing,” said PSL community organizer, Satya Vatti. “We’ve seen it time, time and time again. But when it actually comes down to it, they have done little to nothing to alleviate this crisis of high rents and evictions for the majority of the people that live in the state.”

“That’s why we have little to no protections, but when it comes to protecting the rights of the landlords, you know, they’re there. They’re front and center to do that,” Vatti said.

O’Callaghan and Williams both said though rent control seems like a viable option for many tenants, nonprofit CEOs, advocates and local officials must seek immediate ways to build capital. 

“The state does run the whole income housing tax credit program for Georgia, but those are federal dollars,” O’Callaghan said. “We’re able to use that to get it to developers that might not otherwise be able to build affordable housing to help with supply. So rent control clearly could be one of those solutions, but there are other things a state could do.” 

State lawmakers have made attempts to address the state’s housing affordability shortage, but many of those efforts, largely focused on curbing local housing regulations over the objections of city and county officials, have fallen flat. 

One bill targeting quality rental housing gained traction this year but stalled in the Georgia Senate, remaining alive for next year. Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican, sponsored the Safe at Home Act that would require landlords to maintain rental properties, ensuring a safe living environment for tenants throughout the duration of their lease. 

Carpenter said as someone who grew up in rental properties he understands that this is an important issue to address. However, Carpenter said that the solution could be as cut-and-dried as just putting more housing properties on the market.

“Just get them to build some housing. And then it’ll trickle down,” Carpenter said. “So, let’s say they’re building two bedroom apartments, and they’re $2,500 a month, boy, if somebody moves into that they’re moving out of something. So that frees up whatever they moved out of. If they’re moving out of a $1,500 a month unit, then that opens it up to somebody else.” 

“But, you got to address the speed in which people can build houses,” he said. “(And address) the loopholes that they have to jump through to do stuff that may not be that necessary, from a regulation standpoint, and then just make sure people if they’re not paying their rent, they’re not in there so that it doesn’t affect the people that are paying.”


Studies show that getting a new house built is not that simple

“The rising cost of land, labor, and building materials has emerged as a key challenge for homebuilders and developers. The price of inputs to new residential construction has increased 35 percent since the start of the pandemic,” according to the 2023 Harvard report

And to Vatti and other affordable housing advocates, the trickle-down approach is not enough when families have to decide between paying their rent to avoid eviction or buying groceries.

Some of Georgia’s local officials are starting to take on the housing shortage, like Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, who recently announced a new Rapid Housing initiative, that allocates $4 million to the city’s Continuum of Care for the installation of Rapid Housing units on city-owned properties.

And recently ANDP received a $5 million grant from Truist Bank to help develop affordable housing for low-income families and individuals. And other nonprofit leaders are taking notice.

“It’s not that there’s not an interest in (affordable housing),” NeighborWorks’ Williams said. “Because I will say that for the first time, in a long time, there does appear to be an acknowledgement and interest in affecting the affordable housing crisis.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder