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Housing: A Cornerstone in DCA’s All-In Strategy for Community Development

March 9, 2016  |  Camila Knowles Commissioner, Department of Community Affairs
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Camila Knowles
At the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), we know that it takes many people working together to build a strong and vibrant community. No one person, program or initiative can do it alone. When I first arrived at DCA in 2015, I thought the agency’s work focused in three distinct areas: housing, community and economic development, and local government assistance. However, during the course of my first year here, I have noticed that the regions that realize how interconnected the work we do is are the ones that are succeeding.
 
Safe and affordable housing may not be the first thing you think about when it comes to economic development, but it is a critical and foundational element of any community’s prosperity. Are your local planners chasing a large economic development prospect? Our programs including Georgia Dream and HomeSafe Georgia could help that teacher, firefighter, nurse or police officer live closer to their workplace, the aging resident on a fixed income or those who experienced economic downturn.
 
In Lithonia, the local government had a goal of revitalizing a vacant, retail shopping center that had stymied development in the downtown corridor. In partnership with a private developer and housing tax credits from DCA, a formerly-contaminated dry cleaning site is being transformed into 75 homes that will make up the new Granite Crossing Apartments. The property will not just provide affordable housing but will be a platform for opportunity for its residents. The highly energy-efficient building plan boasts development quality and amenities competitive with market rate apartments, and the bus stop adjacent to the project means families will have convenient access to jobs, schools and daily necessities.
 
As you can see, the benefits of affordable housing development do not stop at the front door. Developments like Granite Crossing can bring in local income and jobs by supporting small businesses and contributing to the local tax roll. DCA is also committed to ensuring these properties are anchors in the community for the long haul, because they are built to last. We continue oversight and partnership with every property for decades after the initial tax credit award is made.
 
Homeownership is another critical tool for having an invested tax base within a community. High rates of homeownership lead to higher property values, better schools, lower crime rates and increased savings for residents. More than 100,000 first-time homebuyers in the state have utilized Georgia Dream to purchase their homes.  Arguably one of our most successful programs, Georgia Dream speaks volumes on paper—but on the ground, with the homeowner, it touches your heart.
 
A woman in Atlanta who had rented her whole life told us that she assumed she couldn’t afford a house. Our Georgia Dream team managed to get her loan in place without issue. As she sat at the table signing closing documents with the lender, our staff and the closing agent were completely silent—petrified that the process might not happen. When she got down to the last signature, she stopped. She looked up and asked, “After I sign this, do I own the house?”
 
The lender replied, “Yes, ma’am. You do.”
 
The woman burst into tears. There is no better picture of how this program makes the American Dream possible for many Georgians.
 
The economic downturn was tough on many of us Georgians, and some of our friends and neighbors are still feeling the effects. Hard-working neighbors lost some or all of their income, and as a result, faced the very real prospect of foreclosure. Some of those homes got tied up in the banks for years and sat vacant, bringing down the beauty and safety of their neighborhoods. HomeSafe Georgia has helped them save their homes, stabilize their neighborhoods and preserve the fabric of our communities.
 
One Georgia family lost their income in 2013. They had purchased their house a decade earlier and began to use unemployment, savings and eventually their retirement savings, to cover bills, food and their mortgage. Once approved for HomeSafe Georgia, this family was able to use their small income to pay for other bills. In 2015, the family got back on their feet and now make their own mortgage payments each month. This is only one story, a drop in the bucket of the number of folks that DCA has been able to keep in their homes and help preserve a healthy homeownership environment.
 
While HomeSafe recipients once wondered where their next mortgage payments would come from, more than 13,000 Georgians still wonder where they will sleep on any given night. We believe the strongest communities are those that answer the call to care for those who need support to live independently, those that give homeless children an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives, and those that honor and respect our veterans and ensure that we honor the promises made to them. DCA, along with many partner organizations across the state, is charged with the immense task of ending homelessness in Georgia. Through the application of programs and initiatives like Rapid Rehousing, Shelter Plus Care, Emergency Solutions grants and others we’ve been able to help reduce homelessness in Georgia by nearly 20 percent since 2013.
 
But our work isn’t done. Families with small children still huddle into cars to stay warm, veterans who served honorably sleep under bridges and a parent chooses to live in a shelter as opposed to returning home to an abusive spouse. We take that as our call to action. We supply aid to more than 150 homeless support efforts in Georgia. We provided emergency shelter to over 12,000 people last year and put stable roofs over the heads of nearly 4,000 folks—half of which who live with disabilities. This is accomplished by empowering communities to realize their own strategies.
 
We all know that people with different jobs, talents and socioeconomic backgrounds make up a community. And those communities that plan for and foster an inclusive environment where its citizens from all backgrounds can interact with one another in schools and neighborhoods and grocery stores and restaurants are particularly poised for success.
 
Our housing programs run the spectrum from home ownership to homelessness assistance. I hope you are familiar with all of our technical and financial resources, and if you aren’t, I hope that you reach out to me or someone on our DCA team so we can join your community on its path to prosperity. 
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