The uproar we saw last week at the Jackson County Board of Commissioner’s meeting is a sign of things to come.
The board faced a large crowd of upset citizens who were protesting against a proposed apartment complex on Hwy. 124 near Braselton. If you want to draw a crowd to a public meeting, just whisper “warehouse” or “apartments” and they will come.
Although the debate over warehouses sometimes brings out silly arguments, one can pretty well understand the main objections — warehouses are big, ugly and bring truck traffic to an area. Where local government leaders see tax dollars with these large industrial projects, nearby residents see only headaches.
The debate over apartments — or for that matter, just about any kind of housing — brings to the table a very complex web of issues. Some are similar to industrial concerns, such as the impact on traffic.
But beyond the physical infrastructure issues, zoning for housing brings a lot of social issues to the fore. Wading through all of that is sticky, especially if you’re a public official.
The nation long ago made it illegal to discriminate in housing based on one’s skin color. But we do have segregated housing in the U.S. based on income and economic standing.
You can clearly see that dynamic in zoning debates where wealthy homeowners oppose apartments and lower-priced homes in their area. In theory, most people support the concept of “affordable housing,” but that kind of housing isn’t always supported in practice.
There are some legitimate issues surrounding that debate. Lower-priced housing and rental housing (including apartments) typically bring in a more transient population. The churn of people from that makes it difficult to do much community-building when a large number of people have shallow ties to where they live.
Communities that have a large percentage of rental housing tend to be less stable. (The exceptions to that are college towns and resort communities where rental housing is part-and-parcel to unique local economies, and in major urban areas where high-density rentals are the main source of housing.) Among other issues, schools in communities where there is a lot of rental property see more churn of students than communities where most parents are local homeowners. Such turnover makes it difficult for schools to plan and teach.
There is a whiff of economic elitism in all of this. Homeowners in wealthy neighborhoods don’t want cheaper housing, or rental housing, nearby. There’s always the argument that cheaper housing near more pricy housing will bring down property values.
That is mostly speculative, though. Home values take a lot of factors into account — lower priced housing two or three miles down the road has much less impact than the quality of the local school district and the historical price of housing in the contiguous neighborhood. That argument is often overstated.
Another argument against rental housing is that it will bring crime to an area. There’s probably some truth to this. Social pathologies tend to affect those at the poverty line at a higher rate than more wealthy demographic groups.
But being poor — or just not wealthy — isn’t a crime itself. Just because someone is poor doesn’t make them a criminal. Economic segregation via zoning to keep the poor away from the wealthy can be ugly. A citizen at an area zoning hearing held last year talked about keeping “those kinds of people” away from her wealthy neighborhood. Some homeowners this year have bragged about their “expensive house” and that they don’t want lower-priced housing nearby.
The truth is, you can’t build a community with just wealthy residents. Strong communities have people with all levels of income and all levels of housing. No economy rides on just the wealthy — someone has to mow their grass, cut their hair, pave their roads and serve them in restaurants.
And therein lies the conundrum facing the communities in Jackson County. If the zoning process is going to be used as a way to redline housing based on income, then there will never be housing in the county for many of those who actually work here. Wealthy homeowners have the resources both financially and politically to always win the fight to stop lower-priced housing.
Jackson County offers mostly blue-collar jobs, many of which don’t pay high wages. Not everyone can afford to live in a $300,000 house. There has to be some lower-priced housing alternatives for households earning $30,000 to $50,000.
Most people would agree with that idea, but many would also like to see such lower-priced housing located anywhere but in their own community.
All of which brings us to the debate last week over rental apartments proposed for Hwy. 124 in West Jackson. When the project first came to the county planning board, only a few people were there to speak against it.
After that board recommended approval of a map amendment that would have opened the door for a future rezoning, those living in the area subsequently turned out before the BOC to make a show of disapproval. It was clear that the community opposed any kind of high-density rental apartments in their area. Period.
In the end, the BOC voted to deny the request, in part because of public opposition, but also in part because the developers did a poor job of making their pitch.
There had been questions at the planning board meeting about the project’s absorption rate and its demographics. Those answers were vague and remained vague at the BOC meeting, something that was a strategic mistake by the developers. When you know there is an issue, face it and address it — don’t just ignore it.
The main mistake: The developers claimed few families would rent their apartments and it would be mostly older couples and young millennials living there.
Nobody believed that claim. Although developers said the rent for the apartments would be high (starting at around $1,200), they failed to back up their demographic projections with solid data.
Those opposed to high-density rental apartments won the day on this issue.
But the larger question remains: Will local governments ever approve lower-priced housing for those with moderate incomes anywhere here?
If not, where will the labor force come from to fill all the blue-collar jobs being created in the community?
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.