Affordable housing challenge puts local control issue in the spotlight 

ATLANTA —  As high-tech manufacturing plants – many in the electric vehicle and battery sectors – are lured to Georgia, affordable housing for workers is emerging as a key challenge.  

“The transformational projects, good paying jobs, and new investments are worth little if there aren’t options for hard-working Georgians to live where they work,” Republican Gov. Brian Kemp noted Jan. 25 in his annual State of the State address.  

To address the problem, Kemp has proposed $35.7 million in the amended fiscal 2023 budget to create a rural workforce housing fund. If the governor’s budget recommendation is approved, those funds would be reallocated from existing spending items.  

The program would be focused on helping local governments finance the infrastructure needed for building new housing developments, said Christopher Nunn, commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).  

“We look forward to launching Georgia’s program, which will leverage [DCA] subject matter expertise in infrastructure to partner with local governments as well as developers,” Nunn said.  

“Of course, we hope that this infusion will also beget additional rural housing investment to meet the needs of a growing workforce. This is a pervasive issue across states [that] few states have figured out how to address.” 

The new fund, though, is just a small step toward addressing Georgia’s housing shortage.   

Augusta is short by 8,600 housing units per year, while Columbus faces a 3,800-unit deficit and Savannah is short by 9,300 units, John Hunt, president of MarketNsight, a housing market research firm, told a state House study committee that focused on the issue last fall.  

Many developers and other free-market advocates believe local regulations imposed by city and county governments drive up the cost of housing.  

“Our work on this issue has established that government regulations, taxes and fees represent a sizable portion of the cost of a new home,” said Kyle Wingfield, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that advocates free-market solutions to public policy issues.

“At a time when Georgia needs hundreds of thousands of additional housing units … we can’t afford these artificial barriers to building more housing supply.”  

But local governments oppose state laws that would preempt local regulation of zoning, building designs and control over the construction of build-to-rent projects.  

“I think it’s rather disingenuous of certain groups to blame [high housing costs] solely on local government regulations,” said Todd Edwards, deputy director of governmental affairs for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG). “The affordability of housing is a very complex issue.”

Edwards pointed to a wide variety of factors that contribute to the cost of housing, including supply chain issues, labor shortages, inflation, and interest rates. If local governments cannot impose regulations around housing, the houses are likely to be built to “the lowest common denominator” and quickly sold to institutional investors, he said.

The ACCG and the Georgia Municipal Association are currently developing recommendations to increase the affordable housing supply in Georgia without preempting local control, Edwards said.  

The Georgia Planning Association also opposes such preemption proposals. 

“Local residents and local leaders know how to solve local problems because we live with them every day and we see them up close,” Whitney Shephard, the association’s president, told the House study committee. “When we work together to come up with local plans and codes, we rely on the state to help us — not strike those codes down because special interests told you to, especially when it comes to our homes.”  

State preemption laws have failed to garner legislative support in the past few General Assembly sessions.  

For example, during last year’s session, bills championed by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, and Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, that would have stopped local governments from prohibiting build-to-rent subdivisions stalled out in committee.  

But Washburn continued the push for state legislation that would limit what local governments can regulate as chairman of the House study committee that focused on the issue last fall.

“If there is excessive regulation that restricts the free market from working efficiently, it must be identified and corrected,” the committee’s report concluded. “The Georgia General Assembly has the authority, and it should consider legislation that will make it easier for the free market to meet the housing needs of Georgians.”  

House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, said earlier this month he is keen to work with local governments on the affordable-housing issue.  

“The House will respect our local partners, whether it be the cities and the counties,” Burns said. “That’s where decisions are made on zoning. … Certainly, we will respect their decisions.”

At the same time, Burns appeared to leave the door open for consideration of preemption laws, though he did not outline any concrete plans. 

“We do not want to stifle private investment in this state when it comes to housing,” he said.

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

Sustainable building materials company bringing jobs to rural Georgia

Pat Wilson

ATLANTA – A sustainable building materials company will build a new headquarters in rural Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp announced Friday.

Green Georgia LLC will invest $59 million in a project that will create more than 170 jobs. The facility will be located in Thomaston, the seat of Upson County.

The company will design and manufacture low-carbon materials used to create prefabricated buildings for a variety of structures, including sustainable factories.

“Green Georgia … is going to transform the way we build today,” said John Wolfington, the company’s principal. “By building in a controlled environment, our products can be produced at a much lower cost and quicker than traditional construction without producing the waste that comes with traditional construction.”

The company has committed to using local contractors and suppliers to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant with more than 300,000 square feet of space to meet increasing demand for its products across the Southeast.

“Green Georgia LLC’s eco-friendly building materials are designed to help businesses grow while reducing their impact on the environment,” said Pat Wilson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development. “With companies increasingly focused on meeting corporate sustainability goals, this new facility is uniquely positioned to support the growth of key industries in Georgia.”

The economic development agency worked with the Thomaston-Upson County Industrial Development Authority, Georgia EMC, and the Technical College System of Georgia’s Quick Start program to secure the commitment from Green Georgia.

Operations are expected to begin by early next year.

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

Georgia House committee OKs ‘alternative’ contracting for road and bridge projects

Georgia Rep. Brad Thomas

ATLANTA – A bill tweaking a transportation project contracting option Georgia lawmakers authorized in 2021 will likely be among the first to hit the floor of either legislative chamber in a slow-moving start to the 2023 session.

The House Transportation Committee passed the bill unanimously on Thursday and sent it on to the Rules Committee, which will decide when to put in on the House floor.

The General Assembly passed legislation two years ago allowing the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to use a contracting alternative that gets contractors involved in projects as they are being designed, earlier than is typically the case.

“This is really for more complex projects,” Rep. Brad Thomas, R-Holly Springs, the bill’s chief sponsor, told committee members Thursday. “It allows for better control of estimates.”

“You don’t have to deal with change orders,” added Josh Waller, director of policy and government affairs for the DOT.

Waller said an example of a complex project is the planned raising of the Talmadge Bridge in Savannah. The State Transportation Board voted last week to authorize using alternative contracting to build that project.

Alternative contracting also works well when a project needs to be completed quickly, such as the replacement of the Courtland Street Bridge in downtown Atlanta, Waller said. That work several years ago was shortened from an originally anticipated two years to just six months.

Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, complained that the tweaks in the new bill added to the 2021 law include vague wording that would give the DOT too much discretion.

One addition to the earlier bill adds the language “otherwise authorized rules and regulations of the department” to a portion of the legislation specifying the procurement procedures that must be used in connection with alternative contracts.

Another provision allows the DOT board by majority vote to waive a portion of the 2021 bill that prohibits the agency from encumbering more than 5% of its capital budget on a single project.

This year’s legislation retains a provision from the 2021 bill aimed at making sure the DOT doesn’t overuse alternative contracting. It allows the department to deliver no more than two projects using alternative contracting during any single fiscal year and no more than seven projects during any 10-year period.

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

Kemp calls out National Guard following violent protests in Atlanta

Gov. Brian Kemp called out the National Guard Thursday to respond to violence in Atlanta. (Gov. Kemp’s officials Facebook page)

ATLANTA – Last weekend’s violent protests in downtown Atlanta have prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to activate up to 1,000 Georgia National Guard troops.

Kemp declared a state of emergency Thursday, citing violence by masked activists last Saturday that included rock throwing, setting off fireworks and burning a police vehicle.

“Georgians respect peaceful protests but do not tolerate acts of violence against persons or property,” the governor’s order stated.

Six protesters were arrested during the protests, which came three days after a law enforcement task force led by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation broke up an encampment at the site of the future Atlanta Public Safety Training Center. Manuel Teran, 26, was shot to death inside one of the tents after he shot and wounded a state trooper, according to the GBI.

Kemp mentioned the incidents in his annual State of the State message Wednesday, praising a Fulton County judge for denying bond to four of the six protesters arrested on Saturday and setting bonds of more than $355,000 for the other two.

Under Kemp’s order, the National Guard troops will have the same arrest powers as law enforcement officers, to be exercised only to protect “safety of persons or property.”

The state of emergency will run through Feb. 9 unless the governor chooses to extend it.

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

Georgia Senate Republicans unveil 2023 legislative agenda

Georgia Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch

ATLANTA – Georgia Senate Republicans announced an agenda for this year’s legislative session Thursday that combines proposals recommended by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp with some of the Senate’s own initiatives.

Like the governor, the Senate Republican Caucus will focus on the economy, education, health care and public safety, Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, told reporters at a news conference inside the Georgia Capitol.

The caucus endorsed Kemp’s push for additional tax rebates to state income tax and local property taxpayers, with the added twist of a thorough review of the more than 200 tax credits on the books.

“Every tax credit should be looked at, its effectiveness … has it created jobs,” Gooch said. “I’m sure some will have higher [returns on investment] than others.”

Indeed, state audits released during the last two months gave Georgia’s film tax credit, the most expensive in terms of revenue impact, a mixed review. Auditors concluded the state’s tax credit for video game developers is having a positive effect on the economy, while the research and development tax credit has yielded a poor return on investment.

Another Senate Republican initiative will focus on improving literacy in Georgia. Not a single school district in Georgia has an acceptable percentage of third-grade students reading on level, said Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, who will spearhead the effort.

The Senate GOP caucus also is backing Kemp’s proposal to earmark $25 million for “learning loss” grants to help schools overcome the impact of students being forced to take online instruction during the pandemic.

Republican senators are lining up behind the governor’s public safety plans, including $50,000 school safety grants for every school in the state and legislation stiffening penalties for recruiting minors to gangs.

The GOP caucus’ health agenda includes expanding telehealth services for rural and underserved communities across Georgia.

“Access to quality health care should not be diminished by your zip code,” Gooch said.

The senators also endorsed Kemp’s call for allowing income-eligible pregnant women in Georgia to receive cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Currently, TANF aid is limited to women who have given birth.

Gooch said individual Republican senators are free to introduce legislation legalizing sports betting in Georgia if they choose. But he said it’s not a caucus priority.

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