Georgia housing stock failing to keep pace with demand

ATLANTA – Georgia’s housing supply – especially affordable housing – is far too low to meet the demand, a group of housing experts told state lawmakers this week.

A House study committee began a series of hearings Wednesday to discuss the problems facing Georgia’s housing market, where affordable homes are often tough to come by. 

“We all need safe shelter, affordable shelter, all our Georgia families do,” said Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, the committee’s chairman.

The problem is acute in Atlanta but reaches statewide. Augusta is short by 8,600 housing units per year, while Columbus faces a 3,800 unit deficit. Savannah is short by 9,300 units, said John Hunt, president of MarketNsight, a housing market research firm.  

Local zoning rules have not changed to reflect state and national demographic shifts, Hunt said, causing a problem called “the missing middle.”   

Millennials ready to purchase a first home and baby boomers whose children have moved out are looking for smaller housing units in the 950-square-foot to 1,750-square-foot range. These groups prefer living in walkable neighborhoods with higher densities and often have disposable income to spend. 

But long-standing zoning rules make it difficult to build such units. Hunt noted that the zoning system is about 100 years old and was initially developed to maintain housing segregation. 

“At the local level, we’ve done a frighteningly efficient job of limiting supply by not allowing density in places where it makes sense,” Hunt said. 

The Hyundai electric vehicle factory in Bryan County and other economic development projects will only increase the demand on housing, said Hugh “Trip” Tollison, president of the Savannah Economic Development Authority. He expects the Savannah area to gain 15,000 to 20,000 jobs over the next five years. Those workers – many of whom will come from other areas to help meet the new demand – will need housing. 

“It’s a big, big lift, and it’s going to happen in a short period of time,” Tollison said, noting coordination among the various governments is needed. 

Even though zoning is typically a local matter, states can take steps to encourage more affordable housing, said Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a policy institute housed at George Mason University. 

Accessory dwelling units such as backyard, garage, or basement apartments allow homeowners to earn extra income by renting out an apartment on their property. They also increase housing supply, Hamilton said, and so far eight states have passed laws legalizing such units.

Minimum lot size requirements also encourage more dense housing, said Hamilton. Reducing lot size requirements helped Houston build 40,000 additional single-family homes with lower price points. 

Georgia should also encourage multi-family units to help quickly meet the housing demand, Hamilton said.

And the state legislature should reform Georgia law to make it clear that cities and counties can’t block the building of single-home rentals, said Simon Bloom, founding partner at the law firm Bloom Parham and a former chairman of the board of the state Department of Community Affairs. Doing so would increase available rental stock, Bloom said. 

Banks and other large investors purchasing homes across metro Atlanta have strained the housing supply, said Samyukth Shenbaga, managing director for community development at the Atlanta Regional Commission. 

In some counties, such as Henry, Paulding, and Douglas more than 6% of single-family residences are owned by such investors. Georgia ranks second after Texas in terms of the number of homes purchased by institutional investors in the state, Shenbaga said. 

“I definitely think that is one issue that is contributing to the rising cost of housing,” agreed Chris Denson, director of policy and research at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank based in Atlanta that advocates market solutions. “Due to the lack of supply, a lot of these banks see housing now as a precious commodity, and that’s why you’re seeing them engaged in this market.” 

Denson pointed to high regulatory costs in Georgia as one reason housing costs are up. His organization recently commissioned a survey on the topic.

Denson said Georgia’s regulatory cost of 27% is about three percentage points higher than the national average. These costs come from requirements like zoning approvals, architectural design standards and building codes, he said. 

“We’re not saying [regulations are] bad or should be eliminated, but they truly do add up and they add to the cost of a new home,” Denson said. “And the two largest cost items, both building code changes and design standards, are fully within the government’s power to influence.” 

Legislators and housing experts also discussed impact fees, which some local governments levy to cover the increased service and infrastructure costs of building new housing units and attracting new residents. 

“For the most part, we don’t truly know what those revenues are going towards,” Denson said, noting his organization has identified more than 50 jurisdictions in Georgia that assess impact fees. 

Hamilton, of the Mercatus Institute, said impact fees can help communities handle the increased demands of new development, though some governments may use the fees to deter new development. 

“Impact fees need to be calibrated so that they are covering the real cost of new infrastructure and service …. but not any higher than that,” Hamilton said. 

The committee meets again Thursday and is planning another two days of hearings Oct. 12 and Oct. 13. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Ossoff introduces federal prison oversight bill

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., introduced legislation Wednesday calling for greater oversight of the federal prison system.

The bill follows a 10-month investigation into conditions inside federal prisons – including the federal penitentiary in Atlanta – conducted by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which Ossoff chairs.

The legislation would require the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general to perform comprehensive inspections of the federal prison system’s 122 correctional facilities, assign each a risk score and recommend how to fix problems. Higher-risk facilities would have to be inspected more often.

Recommendations from the inspector general would be forwarded to Congress. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons would be required to respond to reports within 60 days with a corrective action plan.

The bill also would establish an independent ombudsman in the Justice Department to investigate the health, safety, welfare, and rights of inmates and prison staff and create a secure hotline and online form for relatives and representatives of inmates to lodge complaints.

The bill is being cosponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.

“My 10-month bipartisan investigation of corruption, abuse, and misconduct in the federal prison system revealed an urgent need to overhaul federal prison oversight,” Ossoff said. “I am bringing Democrats and Republicans together to crack down on corruption, strengthen public safety, and protect civil rights.”

“More transparency and accountability will help create a safer environment for the correctional officers and staff who work in our federal prisons and will help crack down on violence … and contraband that endangers the health and safety of prison staff,” Braun added.

At a hearing Ossoff’s subcommittee held in July, two former administrators at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta told stories of inmates being severely abused amid inhumane conditions dating back at least to 2014.

A companion bill to Ossoff’s legislation was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday by Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta.

“Incarcerated Americans should not fear death when they enter our federal prison system, and correctional officers should not fear for their safety at work,” McBath said. “Our federal prisons must serve as an institution that rehabilitates individuals and prepares them for reentry into society.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Third-party groups can help Georgians apply for absentee ballots, federal court rules 

ATLANTA – A federal judge has dismissed a voting rights group’s lawsuit against Georgia’s controversial 2021 voting law. 

The decision confirms VoteAmerica’s online tool that helps people obtain absentee ballots is legal under the terms of Senate Bill 202, the voting reform law the General Assembly adopted last year.

After a prospective voter fills in certain information via the VoteAmerica online tool, the organization mails a partially filled in absentee-ballot request to the voter. The voter then completes the request and submits it. 

VoteAmerica had initially claimed the law would prevent it from continuing to use its tool to help Georgia voters get absentee ballots. 

But Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and lawyers for the state confirmed during the course of the legal proceedings that the VoteAmerica tool is valid, leading to the voluntarily dismissal of the lawsuit on Tuesday. 

“This is a victory for Georgia voters and for VoteAmerica, even as we keep fighting in the courts for groups still negatively impacted by SB 202,” said Danielle Lang, senior director for voting rights at Campaign Legal Center, which represents VoteAmerica and other plaintiffs in the case. 

Raffensperger, one of the defendants in the case, also called the decision a victory. 

“Since [VoteAmerica] has filed their lawsuit, Georgia has had a primary election with record midterm turnout that did not see any major issues implementing the new provisions of SB 202,” a statement from Raffensperger’s office said. 

“In implementing SB 202, the State Election Board promulgated a rule that clearly explained that online tools that helped a voter fill out their absentee application are permitted, as long as the group offering the tool kept a voter’s personal information safe.” 

The case will continue because the two other plaintiffs in the lawsuit – the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information – claim that SB 202 prevents them from continuing their absentee ballot program via direct mail. 

Incumbent Republican Raffensperger is currently running for re-election against Democratic state Representative Bee Nguyen in November. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State university system awards record number of degrees

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia awarded an all-time high 74,446 degrees during the last fiscal year, up 2.1% over fiscal 2021.

“By preparing students for good jobs and helping create the jobs of the future, Georgia’s public colleges and universities are a great value for students and a major contributor to our state’s economy,” system Chancellor Sonny Perdue said Tuesday.

“The record in degrees awarded only confirms that the hard work being done across the university system is having an impact on the success of both our students and Georgia.”

The number of degrees awarded since the university system joined the Complete College America program in 2011 has grown by 36%, far outpacing the 7.1% increase in enrollment during that period.

The university system has undertaken many initiatives during the last decade to boost graduation rates, including the Momentum Year program, which gets first-year students off to a fast start by ensuring they pursue an aggressive course schedule.

The system also has made a point of quickly alerting student advisors when their charges’ performance is lagging and provided “degree roadmaps” to prevent students wasting time and money on courses that don’t count toward their degree.

Last month, the system launched the website Georgia Degrees Pay to show the value of a degree.

Graduates from the class of 2021 will earn more than $1 million more during their lifetimes than they would have if they didn’t go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a recent analysis. Graduate and professional degrees lift those average earnings even higher.

The new website provides a variety of data on the university system’s 26 institutions to allow comparisons of costs to attend, majors and fields of study, and average career earnings.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia high school seniors continue besting the nation on SAT

ATLANTA – For the fifth year in a row, Georgia public-school students outperformed their peers across the country on the SAT.

Georgia’s class of 2022 recorded a mean score of 1052, 24 points higher than the 1028 national score but lower compared to the previous year, when Georgia students posted a mean score of 1077.

The Georgia group also scored higher in the component portions of the test, with a mean score of 536 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portion and 516 in math.

The high marks came despite the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused many schools to close and switch to online instruction.

“That’s a testament to the hard work of students and teachers,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. “While students and school have faced significant challenges over the last several years, as a state we will continue to invest in academic recovery and the opportunities available to every graduate of every Georgia public school.”

Participation in the SAT among the Georgia class of 2022 increased sharply compared to 2021, when the impacts of the pandemic, the cancellation of some test registrations, and the closure of some test centers in 2020 caused fewer students in the graduating class to take the test.

Just more than half of the 2022 class took the SAT, up from 38% in 2021.

Georgia high school students haven’t been as incentivized to take the test as in past years. Citing the effects of the pandemic on learning, the University System of Georgia waived SAT and ACT test requirements at most of the system’s 26 institutions during the last school year and is doing so again this year.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.