There are 1,029 people on the waiting list for the last nine public housing units that remain in Fulton County—all on West Belle Isle Road in Sandy Springs. And the county Housing Authority is in the process of selling that building to the neighboring shopping center, which will tear it down for parking spaces.
The Housing Authority still funds vouchers to subsidize rents, and is renovating a voucher-based apartment complex in Sandy Springs for seniors and people with disabilities. But both the voucher and public housing wait lists have been full and frozen for years, while local rents continue to climb.
“There’s just not enough affordable housing,” said Larry Haqq, the interim executive director of the Fulton County Housing Authority. “It’s as simple as that.”
When residents are displaced from the Belle Isle Apartments, the Housing Authority must get them special vouchers to subsidize market-rate rents somewhere else. But that could be somewhere far from Sandy Springs.
For Robert Harris, a 75-year-old resident of Belle Isle Apartments, the future is “a big question mark. Fitting into another neighborhood is very challenging to me. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“I love it,” Harris said of the apartment’s location. “It’s right in the middle of everything you need—your cleaner, your store, your gymnasium, your health food store.
“On the other hand, I’m anxious to make a move, another chapter in my life,” he said, explaining that his wife died two years ago, making the place feel less like home.
Harris, a Chicago native, once lived with his children in Norcross. He spent three years on the public housing waiting list and has now lived at Belle Isle for 15 years. Those waits and low turnover rates in subsidized housing are only getting longer and bigger, according to Haqq and Teresa Davis, the Housing Authority’s chief mortgage finance officer.
“We’re not taking [new] applications,” Haqq said. “If a person lost their income and lost their job…even if they’re on the list, there’s nothing we can do to assist them at this time.”
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has seen deep budget cuts, Haqq and Davis say, while demand and maintenance backlogs grow both here and around the nation. HUD is moving to shutter traditional public housing like Belle Isle, owned and operated by the Housing Authority. Instead, the public housing system is moving to vouchers and mixed-income projects.
“The whole idea HUD is wanting to focus on is the stigma of public housing and people living in projects,” Davis said.
The Housing Authority can’t afford to maintain the Belle Isle facility and began the process of decommissioning it and selling it in 2013. Meanwhile, it is trying some of HUD’s new programs. Another former public housing building, the 100-unit Sterling Place on Allen Road in Sandy Springs, is being renovated and converted through a public-private partnership with voucher-based rents.
In addition, the authority is a partner in some mixed-income developments that house seniors, but those units are in the Union City area and none are currently planned near Sandy Springs. “Land is at a premium, as you know,” Davis said.
The basic eligibility for receiving government-subsidized housing is having an income below 50 percent of the area’s median income, with much of the aid reserved for people making 30 percent or less. At Belle Isle, rent is capped at $350 per month. At Allen Road, rent is capped at $612 for a one-bedroom and $680 for a two-bedroom. Utilities are included in the rent at Allen Road. Besides rent caps, tenants of subsidized housing pay a maximum of 30 percent of their income as rent.
In a city where new apartments often rent for $2,000 a month, that affordability is much needed. But the voucher waiting list is 599 people long, Haqq said, and no one has been able to join it for at least five years. With market rents skyrocketing, no one has been able to move out of existing subsidized housing.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who once worked at HUD, recalls the days when local rents were so low that, he says, subsidies weren’t needed. Now the apartment boom is having a ripple effect on all housing costs, and tenants of new luxury apartments may need an annual income of $100,000 to afford the rent.
“The rising rents in Sandy Springs are forcing many families who have relied on low-income [market] housing to look at alternatives,” Paul said. “As rents continue to grow, we’ll probably see those families forced out.”
Middle-income housing is the biggest current crisis, Paul said, with a low-income crunch a few years away.
The city does not have its own housing authority, and Paul said he does not see such strategies as inclusionary zoning—which would require a certain percentage of affordable units in market-rate projects—as viable here. Such programs don’t outpace the market, he said, and could ultimately depress home values.
“It’s tough. I’d love to tell you we had a plan that we thought would be successful,” Paul said.