GAINESVILLE – As Gainesville and Hall County continue a pattern of strong growth, both in terms of the economy and the population, learning from those who have had a similar experience can be invaluable; imitating successes while avoiding mistakes can head-off community problems before they have a chance to happen.
With that proactive thought in mind the United Way of Hall County sponsored an event entitled “Housing in Hall County: Challenges, Innovations and Solutions.” For that initiative United Way applied for the services of the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research and education organization whose stated mission is: "to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.”
United Way’s request was granted and eight members from the Atlanta branch of ULI, the Technical Assistance Program (TAP) Atlanta, spent Monday and Tuesday traveling Hall County, meeting with city and county leaders and staff, and speaking with numerous stakeholder groups vital to the continued growth of Hall County.
The ULI representatives all have experience and expertise in the Atlanta marketplace and in the city’s efforts to advance Atlanta as a thriving community. Despite the size difference between Atlanta and Gainesville the members of the board brought with them a desire to help Gainesville and Hall County benefit from Atlanta’s experience in responsible land use and community development.
Late Tuesday afternoon the panel invited all those interested to hear their findings and to consider the group’s recommendations for Hall County and Gainesville in a de-briefing at the Gainesville Justice Center.
United Way of Hall County President Joy Griffin told the audience that the idea to seek the advice of a group such as ULI arose two years ago after the United Way opened the Compass Center, an outreach to help connect local individuals in need with the local resources available.
“We had just opened the Compass Center and in the first sixty days we experienced over 300 requests for rent assistance or housing needs,” Griffin said. “So we knew right away that we had some challenges.”
Griffin was urged to contact ULI, which she did.
Once Gainesville-Hall County was selected by ULI, Griffin said, as much information as possible was sent to the Atlanta TAP so members could have a good base of knowledge regarding the county and could spend the day-and-a-half “filling in the gaps”, as one TAP member described it.
“They’ve seen the Master Plans for the community and they prepared for months leading up to this day-and-a-half,” Griffin said.
Griffin said representative from 34 stakeholder groups were able to meet with the panel and answer questions TAP members had for them.
Griffin said a formal report detailing the panel’s observations and recommendations will be available in the future. “Twelve weeks from now is when we’ll have a bound presentation with a little bit more detail to go along with these recommendations.”
Sarah Kirsch, Executive Director of ULI Atlanta, told the audience she wanted to share some of the initial recommendations in a simplistic format, but more details would be included later in their finalized report as Griffin had explained. Those recommendations are as follows:
Short Term (less than 12 months):
Invest in education and outreach on benefits of housing at multiple price points
The Chamber of Commerce must show leadership on housing
Continue to support the housing authority
Focus resources on a designated area for revitalization
Mid Terms (12-24 months):
Review county zoning to provide better housing opportunities for the aging and the workforce
Review incentives for consistency with housing goals
Implement a formal housing taskforce
Long term (more than 24 months):
Develop housing needs assessment and strategic plan for housing
Consider funding sources such as Housing Trust Fund
Create a community land trust like the land bank already in existence
Act to create more mid-level priced housing.
One area of concern that is sure to capture a lot of space in the final report is the need for mid-level priced housing. Panel members said low-income housing and high-cost housing dominated the real estate picture with little mid-level priced housing available.
Another TAP member said the panel was told by numerous city and county employees that they could not afford to live in Hall County or Gainesville because the costs were too high.
When asked what the city and the county could do today to help with that shortage, TAP member Bruce Gunter, who is also the CEO of Civitas Housing Group in Atlanta, urged officials, “If you needed to act tomorrow, go buy land. One of the mistakes that we’re paying for dearly in Atlanta is…as we planned for two or three years, land got really expensive. Buy land where you want affordable housing to go as soon as you get the money.”