VALDOSTA — Pearlliesa Beal feeds your children.

She is at the school early every day, making sure the meals are prepared on time, that they meet nutritional standards and that your child has a hot, healthy lunch.

She works hard.

She does it all for $800 a month. 

A nutrition assistant with the Lowndes County School System, she’s a full-time employee with state benefits and school holidays off.

She has always wanted to work around kids.

“I knew it was my opportunity to get to work with kids and get benefits,” Beal said.

But paying bills with only $800 take-home pay a month can be tough.

Finding an affordable place to live on that budget can be especially hard.

“I looked basically anywhere,” Beal said. “It seems like the better looking they are, the more they cost. I even looked online and looked at the lower prices, and they looked like they could be condemned. There’s no way someone should pay that much for these homes.”

For now, Beal lives in a close relative’s home with her sister, Altese Beal, and her 16-year-old niece.

It isn’t ideal, Beal said, but she’s out of options.

She has even looked at public housing, which she doesn’t qualify for because she doesn’t have dependents and isn’t disabled, and she hasn't been able to get on the waiting list of low-income tax credit developments fast enough.

For a minute, she even considered an extended-stay motel.

“I’m embarrassed by it,” Beal said. “I tend to look at people I grew up with, and I see they’ve moved on and they’re able to get their own places.”

Her sister, Altese, is in the same predicament.

She works at Lowe’s Warehouse full time for about $15 an hour. It isn’t great, but it’s comfortable, she said.

Altese makes more than double what her sister earns and has a teenage daughter. Yet she can’t find affordable, safe housing either.

“It’s too high everywhere I look,” Altese said. “I looked around at different areas, and they’re around $800-$1,500 a month just for an apartment.”

When she looks at income-restricted developments, she is told she makes too much money for the amount of dependents she cares for.

According to Housing and Urban Development, the average monthly rent for Lowndes County’s 11 zip codes is $718.18 a month or $8,738.16 a year.

If you’ve ever lived in Atlanta, Savannah or any other bigger city, less than $800 sounds nice. It doesn’t sound nice to the 33 percent of people in poverty in the Valdosta Metropolitan Statistical Area, according to Census data, or a community that has a median household income of $31,701 and per capita income of $20,114.

The Beal sisters are not alone.

Every Little Bit Helps

In a line of more than 50 people in the midst of a hot July, people waited for hours outside the door of the St. Francis Outreach Center off of Mary Street.

Each month, doors open at 8 a.m. to give out utility assistance to people in need. 

Joann Monrow was the first in line at 3 a.m.

Though her rent is completely subsidized at Brittany Woods, she still has to pay utilities. Due to chronic health issues, she doesn’t have a job, so she can't afford those bills either.

“There are a lot of people out here that need help,” Monrow said. “Sometimes I can’t even afford my blood pressure medicine. It’s $4 for 12 pills — that’s a lot when you don’t even have a dollar.”

Her story rings the same bells for Charles Copeland, who was further back in the line to receive utility assistance for his $525 a month house off of Caswell Street. He has two kids and makes $8 an hour working part time at Taco Bell. 

Bills are often tight, he said.

“It’s just up and down,” Copeland said. “Sometimes, it’s a little more one month compared to the next. You might work less, and it doesn’t even out with your bills.”

Sister Nuala Mulleady, who runs the utility assistance program out of St. Francis Outreach Center, hears similar stories every month.

Some folks don’t have a job due to persistent medical issues, but everyone needs somewhere to live.

Others can’t get a job because they just got out of jail, but they still need money to have a roof over their head.

Then there are many people, such as the Beal sisters, who work hard for little money and still can’t afford to provide themselves a home and the bills that come with it.

“People I have been helping, especially women with children, their check is being used all on rent,” Mulleady said. “The check the families receive is not increasing, but the rent is going up.”

What they can afford, she said, is not a quality living situation, and the landlords go silent when asked to fix the terrible conditions in many of the rentals in Lowndes County.

It worries her, she said, to wonder where so many people go when they cannot afford that monthly rent.

Affordable housing does exist within the borders of Lowndes County.

You’ll likely be put on a waiting list if you want it, though.

A Matter of Perspective

Mark Stalvey is the executive director of the Valdosta Housing Authority.

He is responsible for the operation and oversight of housing areas at Ora Lee West, Hudson Dockett and about 135 scattered house sites around the city. In total, the authority has 530 units, which includes three-bedroom houses to one-bedroom apartments.

For people in Valdosta in need of affordable housing, the average wait time to get an apartment is just less than a month after they are approved for housing, Stalvey said. They have been at 97 percent occupancy during the last five years, with 612 moving in and 605 moving out.

To be approved, a person has to fall within the income threshold, from $12,490 for one extremely low-income person to $57,250 for a low-income household of eight.

The average monthly rent is $101.54.

Stalvey said he often hears the argument that public housing encourages people to remain under employed, so they can continue living off taxpayer dollars. When he hears this, he said it’s important to remember the intent of public housing, which is to be a hand-up and not a hand-out.

“The program is there to help people get back on their feet,” Stalvey said. “Valdosta and Lowndes County has done a good job at doing that.”

Affordable is all relative, and before public housing, slums were a common problem in the city.

What’s affordable to one person can be completely beyond reach for another, but no matter how much someone may make each month, they have to sleep somewhere.

It has to do with what a person is willing to put up with and their standard of living.

“People will live wherever they can if they’re desperate enough,” Stalvey said. “Prior to public housing, we had slums. Do you want someone sleeping in your toolshed?”

Slums and blighted areas were one of the primary reasons for the creation of public housing, he said.

Working families are nearly half of everyone living in public housing, he said. The other half is elderly or disabled.

To be eligible, occupants must pass a criminal background check, but the authority wants to give people a way back into society, he said.

Housing and Urban Development has encouraged authorities throughout the country to relax some of the criminal background requirements.

“Recent, violent offenders and sexual offenders are not allowed — period,” Stalvey said.

Smaller offenses, such as drug use, are no longer an automatic disqualification for receiving public housing, he said. Breaking the law while living in the authority is a different matter.

No Progress for Public Housing

Stalvey said his units are deeply subsidized by tax dollars compared to the tax-credit housing units that are not as deeply subsidized.

Then, there is Section 8, which is a tenant-based voucher program. This means if someone applies and gets on the Section 8 waiting list, she could wait for years to get housing because of the lack of units, Stalvey said.

The Valdosta Housing Authority does not administer the Section 8 program. There are only 11 Section 8 administrators throughout the state for the program, he said. The rest of the state, such as Valdosta, has to go through the Department of Community Affairs, he said.

This makes it much more difficult for a local person to get on the waiting list to receive Section 8.

“It’s easier in the bigger cities, because you have a place you can go to get an appointment,” Stalvey said.

It is unlikely more Section 8, or even more public housing units such as Ora Lee West, would be made available to Valdosta and Lowndes County residents.

On top of everything, HUD’s budget continues to decrease, making it nearly impossible for Stalvey to see a potential in increasing public housing units. 

“HUD has not had a production program or method for individual agencies to produce new housing in 40 years,” Stalvey said.

This has pushed Stalvey and other city and county officials to start thinking creatively.

New Age of Public Housing

City of Valdosta officials, such as Vanassa Flucas, neighborhood development director, know there aren’t enough affordable housing options, particularly those that are safe and clean.

In her department, the city can really only do code enforcement on homeowners who don’t maintain their properties.

They have, however, been at the table with the Valdosta Housing Authority to discuss other ideas.

“We’ve been working together for years to figure out exactly what is going to be best to replace that affordable housing project,” Flucas said. “None of us want to go back with an Ora Lee West. None of us really want to go back with a Hudson Dockett.”

How do they bring affordable housing to city residents if the government won’t entirely provide it?

That’s where low-income tax credits and mixed-use, mixed-income housing comes in.

At 88 units, onsite laundry, a clubhouse and a playground, Freedom Heights on Bemiss Road caught the attention of many Valdosta residents.

The apartment complex features one-, two- and three-bedroom units as modern and as attractive as any other apartment complex in Valdosta.

However, it’s a little different from the rest.

It was built with the help of low-income tax credits, meaning single-bedroom apartments can rent as low as $300 a month.

“(Low-income tax credits) actually make projects like this very feasible, and you can charge these lower rents,” said Rhett Holmes of IDP properties. “It’s subsidizing the cost.”

The Internal Revenue Service makes these credits available to the states, which then have developers bid for the available cuts.

Holmes’ company has similar developments throughout the South in places such as Kingsland, Lake City, Fla., New Orleans and multiple projects in Valdosta.

Other low-income tax-credit complexes include Heron Lake and Ashley House.

“Valdosta is blessed with several tax-credit housing, and we’re in the leading age of tax-credit housing,” Stalvey said.

Holmes even has plans to bring another property to Valdosta where the China Garden currently exists on Ashley Street — 76 units geared toward senior citizen living.

The difference in those communities compared to housing projects is that nobody knows who is paying how much for rent, Flucas said. Since the properties are mixed income, some people pay more than others for rent based on their income. 

With the tax credits also come a list of regulations ensuring the developments are high quality, preventing them from falling into disrepair.

“You have all of the amenities, crown molding and it’s a nicer development — much better than what some people call affordable housing in our community,” Flucas said.

The public is responding positively to the units, too.

Freedom Heights has a waiting list and had filled all of its units before it even opened, Holmes said.

“We were 100 percent pre-lease before we finished construction,” Holmes said. “(The wait list) is in the thousands.”

Even the Beal sisters checked out the property, which boasts one-bedroom units for $300-$600, and were notified there was already a long list of eager people waiting for affordable housing.

It would seem obvious that similar housing options are needed.

Its growth may be in trouble, though.

Lawsuits and Court Battles

Holmes thinks assessors are overvaluing his development, which could prevent him from building future low-income housing.

“They continue to increase the value of property assessments more than the properties can afford,” Holmes said. “They are detrimentally hurting the housing developments.”

The Lowndes County Board of Tax Assessors Office and multiple low-income tax credit developers are embroiled in a lawsuit that has gone all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Since a 2002 ruling from Southern Circuit Judge Harry Jay Altman II, Lowndes County tax assessors have factored the tax credits used to build these developments when valuing property, essentially increasing appraisals and property taxes.

Silas Hrobar, chief appraiser for the Lowndes County Board of Tax Assessors, said the county is simply following court rulings to determine the fair market value of properties that benefit from income-tax credits, also known as Section 42 properties.

“Our job is to assess property at fair market value,” Hrobar said. “This means the amount a knowledgeable buyer would pay and a willing seller would accept.”

He said the Lowndes County Superior Court has ruled these tax credits are attached to the property and must be considered when determining the value. 

The Georgia Court of Appeals ruled the tax credits go “hand in hand” with the rental restrictions to which the owner agreed. Considering the rental restriction without also considering the tax credits would artificially depress the value of the property, Hrobar said.

Assessors valued Holmes’ new Freedom Heights development at $11.5 million taking into account the low-income tax credits his company used to help fund the complex.

The Georgia Supreme Court also ruled credits are part and parcel of the property and affect the amount a knowledgeable buyer would pay. 

In fact, the courts have have consistently said tax credits must be considered when establishing the fair market value of Section 42 properties, such as Freedom Heights. 

To Holmes, this seems counter-productive to bringing in more affordable housing units. “It is important that for all the public support shown for affordable housing, the tax assessors are not following through with that support,” he said.

Holmes thinks the whole point of income-tax credits is to incentivize developers to build attractive and modern housing units and move away from housing projects such as Ora Lee West. He sees the increased property valuations by appraisers as essentially taxing Section 42 developers and thinks it will discourage future developments. 

Assessors, on the other hand, say the law supports their approach. The fight continues in the courts.

But that may not be the end of the story. 

In 2002, Georgia voters rejected a proposed amendment to the Georgia Constitution that would have allowed different methods for assessing Section 42 properties that receive tax credits. The amendment failed by 150,000 votes.

Much has changed since 2002. Rent continues to rise while wages stay the same, and the likelihood of that trend changing gets bleaker every year.

Georgia is not alone.

The monthly median income in the U.S. for renters is $2,815, yet the median monthly rental cost is $928 — almost $100 more than the recommended 30 percent of a monthly income that should go to paying the rent.

More than half of the population in most states is considered cost burdened by their rent compared to the money they bring home, including New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Hawaii and several counties in Georgia. Cities and counties throughout the state and nation are faced with a growing problem without easy answers.

And what about Pearlliesa Beal? 

She will continue going to work every day. 

She will do her best to pay her bills on a modest income and keep feeding your children. 

For more on affordable housing look for the second part of this SunLight Project report later this week in The Valdosta Daily Times.

Katelyn Umholtz is a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be contacted at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256.

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