As Sandy Springs continues its shopping spree of houses on Hammond Drive for a potential road-widening, pressure is mounting to plan the properties’ short-term future. Low-cost housing for city police and firefighters is one idea with lots of positives and negatives, the City Council heard at its Aug. 2 meeting, where it requested more data to make a quick decision.
“I support investigating this further…[But] I do have some concerns about the liability this could open the city up to,” said Councilmember Ken Dishman, reflecting the council’s general reaction to the public-safety housing idea.
The council has talked about the idea for months, but time is running short. That same night, the council approved buying its fifth Hammond Drive residential property this year—a house at 418 Hammond for $350,000—as a “protective buy.” The possible widening project is controversial among residents, but so is the fate of the properties in the minimum 10-year period before the project would begin, if it happens at all. In April, the city cited one of its own newly purchased houses at 521 Hammond for code violations.
“The clock’s ticking right now,” City Manager John McDonough told the council. “We bought another one tonight. We need some direction.”
The city originally planned to simply tear down any houses it buys on Hammond, but when one turned out to have been recently renovated, some councilmembers raised concerns that demolishing it might be wasteful. That concern merged with a previous policy idea of providing a housing stipend for police and firefighters, as Mayor Rusty Paul said it’s “immoral” that many of them can’t afford to live in the increasingly expensive city they protect. Councilmember Andy Bauman advocated city-owned Hammond houses as a possible temporary solution or pilot program.
McDonough said about 10 police officer and five firefighters previously responded to a city survey expressing interest in “low- or no-cost” housing if it was available. If the Hammond housing does work out, it likely will still amount to a form of subsidized housing, McDonough said, explaining that he’s “pretty sure this is going to require a city subsidy. I don’t think we’re going to break even on this.”
Jacob Wingate, a management intern for the city, ran through some pros and cons of the idea. Aside from the obvious benefit to some public-safety employees, Wingate said the positives include a “perception that the area becomes safer”; improved relationship between officers and the community; and shorter employee commutes and possibly faster emergency response times.
The negatives were summed up in the phrase, “the city becomes a landlord.” There are liability issues, repair costs, lost investment if the city fixes up the houses only to demolish them later. There are possible legal tangles in the city acting as a tenant’s landlord and employer at the same time, with a “worst-case scenario” of a terminated employee alleging discrimination and suing to remain in the house. Another negative mentioned in a memo provided to the council: possible tax liability for the employee if the subsidized housing must be counted as income.
The memo includes two examples of other cities that offer subsidized employee housing, with one not really matching Sandy Springs’ idea, and the other reportedly a disaster. Abilene, Texas, allows workers to live virtually rent-free at utility sites in exchange for maintaining them. And the City of Industry, Calif., provided subsidizing employee housing in city-owned property, but has run into a scandal over high-paid workers living there and may face massive tax penalties or prosecution, according to the Sandy Springs memo and media reports.
For any Hammond Drive housing, councilmembers seemed to agree hiring a private management company would make sense. But they also questioned whether more than a couple of houses there might be in good enough shape anyway.
“A lot of them—we don’t want to be slumlords, and they just need to come down,” said Councilmember Tibby DeJulio.
“Everybody likes to have a police officer in their neighborhood,” DeJulio said, but the council also needs to make sure that when it comes to housing public safety employees, “the city doesn’t end up with mud in the eye.”
“You could talk yourself out of this program” by posing enough questions, said Bauman, urging more investigation—but also posing many of those questions, including whether several officers could share the housing as roommates.
“This is being done out of good intentions…[but] I do have a lot of concerns about the unknowable unknowns out there,” said Councilmember Gabriel Sterling, citing such possible problems as “jealousy” among police officers who don’t win a lottery for the housing.
City staff could not provide some basic data, such an inventory of the currently owned houses’ conditions and cost to renovate. The council called for a quick production of those numbers and indicated a policy decision will be based on them.
“If it costs more to renovate it than to tear it down, it’s not worth it,” said Councilmember John Paulson.