Editor’s Note: Sandy Springs Together periodically publishes letters or comments from community members who raise a concern we feel should be considered by the broader community.
By Mary Baron
Mr. Fred Rogers had a famous quote about confronting difficult, scary times.
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world!”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing many of these very “helpers” in our Sandy Springs community. On the frontlines of this crisis are the doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who are risking their own health to keep us safe and healthy.
But, there are others whose work has largely gone unnoticed in the past who are now being recognized as crucially important in our daily lives and in the success of our local businesses. We owe a debt of gratitude to these people who are continuing to work.
The cashiers and grocery store employees who ensure that we can still get food on our tables. The school cafeteria workers who make food so that local children can get a meal even though schools are closed. The delivery truck drivers who are getting necessary items to stores and our homes. Janitorial staff, warehouse workers, senior caregivers, bank tellers, the list goes on and on.
Of course, we should all say a thank you to the helpers whenever possible (and if you are able, tip generously). Another way to show our appreciation for these members of our community is to ensure that they have a home here in Sandy Springs. As essential as their services are, many of these people are not paid well and struggle to afford to live in our city.
On March 18, 2020 the City Council announced a Request for Proposals to find a qualified consultant to do a comprehensive housing needs assessment. Sandy Springs Together is pleased that the city is moving forward with this important analysis of our city’s housing situation. We are hopeful that this assessment will help the city understand the needs of all the people working in our city.
While Mayor Paul has stated that this study is broader than just an affordable housing study, the Request for Proposals states that the assessment will look at “the market rate and availability of rental units across the City” and will include a “discussion of whether or not renters are being priced out of the Sandy Springs rental market”.
Several years ago, the city examined housing needs in its “Next 10 Plan: Workforce Housing Element” which was approved in April of 2016. The Workforce Housing Element stated that “precisely how to define ‘workforce’ households is something that Sandy Springs will have to decide as part of the process of developing its own local policy. In other words, what specific group of households does the City want to target?”.
After considering possible models created by HUD or the Urban Land Institute, the city settled on the definition of workforce households as those in the $65,000 to $100,000 range arguing that “Workforce Housing … targets more moderate income households.”
As a result of this definition of workforce housing, the city then concluded that it should focus on the development of new for-sale housing at the $341,600 price point and supported this conclusion with an example of a couple employed as a firefighter and a nurse making a combined income of $111,100 per year. The 2020 Request for Proposals for a housing needs assessment also points to this 65,000 to $100,000 income range.
But, is this income level the appropriate definition of workforce households at this point in time?
The source of the data regarding Sandy Springs income levels in the 2016 Workforce Housing Element was the American Community Survey dated 2009-2013 and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the Atlanta MSA from 2014. Much of this information may be outdated and may not reflect the present situation. The COVID019 pandemic is creating tremendous economic upheaval with high unemployment and business closings.
While there is hope that this will be a short term recession, there is a possibility that this will impact our economy for quite a while. In light of this, the presumptions made in that 2016 document will need to be reevaluated.
In addition, the example given of a two-income household with a combined income of $111,100 doesn’t take into consideration the fact that many young people have high levels of student loan debt to pay off. The Federal Reserve reports that student loan debt is having a strong effect on homeownership. Between 2004 and 2014 outstanding student loan balances more than doubled for individuals ages 24 to 32 and in surveys young adults report that their student loan debts are preventing them from buying a home.
In light of these economic changes, $341,000 may no longer be a realistic price point for workforce homebuyers.
It is great progress that our city is assessing our housing needs. It is a conversation that we have been advocating for. Hopefully, it will be inclusive of all the workers in our city.