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The Challenge of Workforce Housing in High-Growth, High-Cost Communities

March 9, 2016  |  Rusty Paul, Mayor, Sandy Spring
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Rusty Paul
Traditionally, the term “workforce housing” described the temporary, amenity-laden residential facilities that oil companies and other employers used to attract workers to the remote areas where their jobs were located. Without nearby population centers, market forces were inadequate to generate normal housing options.
 
In recent years, municipal planners have borrowed the term to describe situations where housing costs outstrip the incomes earned by firefighters, police, teachers, nurses, med tech and other healthcare workers and additional employee categories critical to a community’s quality of life and economic vitality.
 
The problem is particularly acute in high-growth communities, like Sandy Springs, where land values and housing costs are high and rising. While not necessarily common, some city workers live more than 60 miles away to find affordable housing on salaries that are market competitive for municipal workers.
 
For a police force with approximately 130 sworn officers, we have only a handful who live in our city. With three major hospitals, Sandy Springs is metro Atlanta’s primary healthcare center employing more than 14,000 people. Except for some physicians, most workers drive from outside our city to work.
 
Because so many people who work in Sandy Springs can’t afford to live here, commuting generates approximately 102,000 trips daily coming into the city with only 38,000 leaving, and just a few thousand who drive the short distances from home to work within the city limits. No wonder Sandy Springs has a traffic congestion problem.
 
After two years working to find incentives to persuade drivers to adopt alternative commuting options and working with employers to reduce their traffic impacts on local streets, we found only one solution that will seem to work: encouraging housing options within our high-density work centers.
 
We find that many workers relish the opportunity to leave the car in the garage to walk or bike to work.
 
But unless that housing is affordable to the typical worker, that isn’t much of a solution. So, here’s how we are working to attack the problem. One, our healthcare centers are among our fastest growing employers and have a significant impact on traffic, so we are urging them to incorporate employee housing options in their expansion plans.
 
The city council recently approved a housing development on land owned by St. Joseph’s Hospital, an Emory Healthcare facility, stipulating that the hospital target market the units to area healthcare workers. The developer also agreed, in return for certain concessions, to set aside units specifically affordable for middle-income healthcare workers.
 
When other area hospitals seek expansion zoning, we will encourage them to incorporate employee housing, too. At the same time, we don’t plan to require developers to set aside workforce units, but when they ask for concessions, that conversation will rapidly move toward workforce affordability. Rather than mandates, we want to find incentives that harness the private sector’s innovative power to generate market-based solutions that fit within our community.
 
What about our own employees? Council recently created a housing stipend to offset some added housing costs for police officers who move their families into the city. We know not every officer wants to live in the city they police, but we want to help any family that does. After assessing this initiative’s popularity, we hope to offer similar assistance to other public safety personnel and maybe other worker categories in the future.
 
For Sandy Springs, affordable housing options close to work centers isn’t just about solving traffic, though we believe it will help. Healthy communities consist of a diverse population, with diversity measured by many demographics factors. No factor is more important than maintaining economic diversity and in a community like Sandy Springs, it requires on-going work and focus.
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