Data Analysis: What is “affordable housing” in coastal Georgia? It depends.

Maggie Lee, The Current

What constitutes “affordable” housing depends on what you have in your wallet. But if you look at all of coastal Georgia and compare a federal guideline, it's clear that most families of four can “afford” housing that ranges from zero to about $2,300 per month.

For a family of four, the median income difference is between $77,000 and $92,400 on the coast, depending on where they live, according to newly released figures from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The same department's spending guidelines say families should spend no more than 30 percent of that income on housing.

That local HUD income number is — or should be — important to local politicians as they try to decide what kind of housing and public services to build in their communities. Can their constituents afford large apartments or small townhouses or single-family homes 10 miles from anything? Should zoning allow carriage houses? Duplexes?

Some cities use HUD income numbers to determine local policies, such as subsidizing developers who set below-market rents that a teacher or firefighter, for example, can afford on 30 percent of their income.

Housing authorities use HUD income figures to determine who is eligible for a housing permit.

Activists use HUD's income numbers and the 30 percent rule when they push policymakers to subsidize or prioritize the construction of even more affordable housing.

So it's an important benchmark for people who want to understand the housing shortage in their community and start addressing those problems.

When families cannot find housing, the story is familiar: tight budgets and long commutes are the beginning of the problems. In the worst case, they face real danger, such as slumlords and homelessness.

The number tells you at a glance what your colleagues, the other parents at school, the cooks, the delivery people and the lawyers see when they look in their wallets.

Here are the incomes in your community and what people can afford, according to HUD.

What's in your neighbor's wallet

A family of four with an annual income of $92,400 is in the middle of the income scale for a household of that size in the Savannah region – which HUD defines as Bryan, Chatham and Effingham counties – for the year beginning April 1, 2024.

Half of four-person households in the Savannah area earn more than $92,400, and the other half earn less—that's the “median income” for a four-person household in the area.

This four-person household could consist of one parent with income and three children. It could be a couple each with one income and two children. It could be a grandparent with a retirement income, a working parent and two children. It could be any combination of four related people.

If a family is larger, their average income is higher, and if a family is smaller, it is lower, and HUD calculates all of this.

But the benchmark for the starting point is the family of four.

Above the median income, housing can be more about choice, preference, location and convenience. Even higher up the ladder, there is even luxury and character.

But below the average income the pressure begins.

What this income buys

“I would say the challenge in Savannah is that many of our service sector workers and early career workers in Chatham County can no longer afford rent or mortgage,” said Laura Lane McKinnon, executive director of Housing Savannah, a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing. “People are having to move further and further away from their school or their place of work.”

The 30 percent housing spending rule comes from the amount HUD expects some low-income customers to pay for subsidized housing. Households need at least 70 percent of their income to pay for cars and gas, groceries, health care, savings, child care, security deposits, down payments and other living expenses.

In expensive cities, people may need even more than 70% for other things. Or if a family's income is already low, 70% may not be enough for everything else.

Think of it this way: A family making $100,000 would have about $70,000 left after 30% of housing expenses. $70,000 can cover a lot of child care, transportation, and savings.

But a family with a household income of $50,000 would only have $35,000 left after spending 30 percent on housing. And that is slowly sliding into a direction where the housing burden is too high and other areas of life are underfunded or not funded at all.

Of course, many families spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, but that also comes with risks: nothing for emergencies, expensive liens, relying too much on family for child care, or driving a car that needs new brake pads.

Internet purchases

So let's go back to the typical family of four, in the middle of the income scale, who need a place to stay.

And let's look at another family whose income is in the middle of the lower half of the income scale. This family earns “50% of the area median income.”

Three quarters of families of four earn more than her. A quarter earn less than her.

It is difficult for families there to find housing, although this amount is difficult to quantify.

Looking at Zillow or other real estate sites gives a glimpse into real-time market prices, but may miss important parts of the market, such as small landlords who don't advertise online. And the prices advertised don't include utilities.

As for buying, Savannah Area Realtors agents in Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties calculated that the median sales price in March was $344,000. A typical mortgage payment on such a home — not including utilities — is about what the average family of four can afford. Just about attainable on paper, assuming the family has saved a down payment or perhaps tapped into “Mom and Dad's bank.”

HUD looks at housing costs from a different perspective, releasing “fair market rent” numbers that start with a U.S. Census study of what people actually pay. This is a little closer to reality, but it takes a while to calculate, they are not real-time numbers.

But for each area, HUD publishes the cost, including utilities, for a studio apartment and a one-, two-, three-, or four-bedroom apartment that is slightly below the median price in an area. In technical jargon, HUD publishes the “40th percentile” cost.

But all of these price quotations assume that people can find a vacant apartment or house in the first place. The fear of displacement is real when the owner of a mobile home park or apartment building decides to sell his property.

Fear of noise is also real. Hinesville City Council member Diana Reid said there are voters who are afraid to complain to their landlords about rats or broken appliances for fear of losing an affordable apartment – and then having an eviction on their record, making moving even more difficult.

“They want decent housing, we're fed up with slumlords,” Reid said. “But they get away with it because they know people don't have housing.” She said there are landlords who collect rent but don't want to fix anything.

Hineseville welcomes companies like Kroger and Walmart as well as fast-food restaurants, Reid says, but the wages at these jobs are not enough for employees to afford the housing the city allows at the same time.

“So that’s the hourly wage, but then we allow people to build it [housing]”That doesn't make any sense, does it?”

In Chatham County, developers can't build a single-family home for less than $300,000, said McKinnon of Housing Savannah.

“They're struggling to build anything less than that, and with wages in our area, we need homes that cost between $150,000 and $250,000.”

GPB reaches this story through a reporting partnership with The current.

Anna Harden

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