Extremely low-income families in Augusta and Aiken have a harder time finding housing than renters nationwide, while Columbia County could soon have difficulty accommodating members of its poorest population, according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute.
Through analyzing Census Bureau and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development data, the Washington-based think tank found that only 28 percent of “extremely low-income” renters in the U.S. were able to find decent, affordable homes.
In the Augusta region, Aiken and Richmond counties were the only communities where extremely low-income households – families of four who earned no more than $17,050 a year – had a tougher time finding a home than renters nationwide.
In Aiken and Richmond counties, respectively, only 21 and 26 percent of extremely low-income families were able to find homes, according to the Urban Institute’s report.
Columbia County was not far behind, with only 31 percent of extremely low-income renters able to find adequate housing.
Outside Augusta’s urban core, the rate of extremely low-income families who could find housing began to improve, increasing to 34
percent, 39 percent and 44 percent in Edgefield, McDuffie and Burke counties, respectively. Lincoln County
did not have a large enough population to generate data.
“There is just not enough,” said Kelly Evans, the executive director of the East Georgia Housing Authority, which includes Columbia and McDuffie counties. “We don’t have nearly enough affordable housing. The gap for available homes between middle- and low-income families is widening.”
In Columbia and McDuffie counties, Harlem and Thomson are the only cities with housing authorities. Harlem has 44 housing units, and Thomson has 200.
Evans said each has a waiting list of more than 100 people, with the majority consisting of senior citizens and disabled people.
Though McDuffie County has joined a statewide movement to obtain tax credits to build affordable apartments in Thomson, Evans said, the availability of low-income housing likely will decrease in Columbia County, causing fewer families – possibly 27 percent – to be able to find homes.
For its participation in Georgia’s Initiative for Community Housing, McDuffie County was awarded low-income tax credits last year to construct 72 Rollingwood Place Apartment units on Mendel Avenue in Thomson by the end of 2016, with rent ranging from $399 to $540.
In Columbia County, Evans said, the driving force behind the problem is how the government issues Section 8 vouchers to low-income families who are paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income toward rent and utilities.
As the senior population ages out, Evans said, most of the roughly 3,000 Section 8 vouchers in Columbia County – which are tied to people, not property – will re-enter the general population and likely be issued to applicants in other Georgia communities.
Evans added it is also hard for renters to navigate the voucher system, because Section 8 subsidies can be acquired only online or by calling or visiting the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ office outside of Atlanta.
“For people with very low income, that is not feasible,” she said. “If we had our voucher program managed locally, it would make it much more accessible.”
Sirena Rogers, the administration director at the Augusta Housing Authority, said its Section 8 applications are completed online. Since 2011, when the city closed its waiting list, the department has received 8,000 vouchers, she estimated.
Today, Augusta has about 4,000 Section 8 vouchers, with about 93 percent being used, Rogers said. She said there are another 4,000 subsidy requests on a waiting list, not including those for the elderly and smaller projects.
The housing authority has the same turnover rate for its 1,824 public housing units, with about 93 percent remaining filled. There are more than 4,600 families on the authority’s public housing waiting list, which has been closed, except for applicants ages 55 and older.
Rogers said Augusta Housing Authority is offering energy-efficient appliances and utilities to help low-income families afford rent at 300 new units opening at Walton Communities, formerly Underwood Homes.
She said the department is constantly removing families from its waiting list, after determining eligibility based on background checks and income, moving out residents who violate leases and drafting new agreements as soon as maintenance approves units as ready.
“It’s a constant turnover,” she said.