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Here's what community, local officials have to say about affordable housing in Forsyth County
Donna Shively Orchard Apartments 3 041919 web
Donna Shively reads outside her unit at Orchard Apartments off Meadow Drive near downtown Cumming on Friday, April 12, 2019. Residents of the complex recently received a letter from management notifying them that the property could potentially be sold and developed into a mixed-use project. - photo by Brian Paglia

In the wake of recent news that dozens of local senior citizens could be displaced from their homes at the Orchard Apartments in the coming year to make way for a large mixed-use development, Mashburn Village, that has been proposed in the heart of Cumming, hundreds of local residents have taken to social media to voice their concerns over the proposed project.

In Facebook comments and shares, dozens called on local lawmakers to stop the project or to help the residents, many of whom are low-income, elderly or disabled.

Previously city officials told the Forsyth County News that although the property has been submitted for rezoning, nothing will move forward with the city until a Development of Regional Impact (DRI) process was done by state and regional organizations.

Still, residents of the Orchard Apartments say that friends and neighbors have already started leaving the complex, and others expect to soon follow. 

In early March, residents of the Orchard Apartments received word from the complex’s management company that there was a “good possibility” the land the apartments sit on would be sold in early fall. They were “strongly advised” to find a new place to live and given the contact information for the housing authorities in the cities of Hartwell, LaFayette, Ellijay and Gainesville.

“You can’t even say the word affordable”

In a post to Facebook made Sunday, Forsyth County District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills voiced her concern at the community’s passionate reaction to the news, stating that the public has directed its anger at Forsyth County over a City of Cumming issue and explaining that “the city council hasn’t recruited” the proposed project to happen or voted on its future.

“I see so many screaming they don’t want these apartments removed, but I have to wonder, where have you been up to now, because the need has been here and there’s many with nowhere to live,” her post stated.

On Wednesday, Mills told the FCN that this reaction has been totally different than what is normally displayed by the Forsyth County community. Most efforts to advance or preserve affordable housing in the community are hotly contested.

“You can’t even say the word affordable ... people come out in droves against anything affordable,” Mills said.

She said what makes this case different is that people are seeing firsthand how a lack of affordable housing is affecting residents.

“It’s because you're talking [about] people removing it here, rather than building it,” she said. “If anybody was talking about building new affordable [housing] ... the only general reaction I've ever heard is, 'We don't want those people.'”

According to Patrick Bell, chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party, one of the main problems is that the words “affordable housing” have become synonymous with government-funded or subsidized housing in the minds of some.

Bell, who previously served as a Forsyth County Commissioner, said the term “affordable housing” means homes that are meant for the county’s workforce of public safety, teachers, “blue collar” workers, as well as young couples and the elderly. 

“I think it's critical that we clarify that when I talk about affordable housing, I'm not talking about Section 8, government-funded [housing] ... it's just allowing for density, square footage, materials, etcetera, that will allow for homes to be built that can be afforded by the everyday working person,“ Bell said. "We can have workforce housing but we can't have affordable housing, when in reality they are one in the same.”

Bell said that it is unfortunate that both the property owners and residents of the Orchard Apartments have been forced into such a hard situation with painful decisions to be made on both sides.

"Everyone should be able to buy and sell property, it's just unfortunate there’s nowhere for somebody to come in and develop some type of replacement product," he said. "Currently, I don’t believe there’s any place in the county or any provision in the UDC that would allow for smaller, well-built apartments for seniors.”

Bell said that he has become accustomed to proponents of “no growth” or “limited growth” in the county taking a hardline stance that there is already ample affordable housing in the community or that those who can’t afford to live here, shouldn’t live here.

“I would argue that there is not a place in Forsyth or Dawson or Hall or Cherokee that you could rent for $283 a month," Bell said, referring to a woman currently living at the Orchard Apartments. "There’s no reason to be an elitist. There's room in Forsyth County for everyone to live." 

But not all in the county take a hardline stance on housing.

In an email statement to the FCN, Smart Growth Forsyth deputy director Claudia Gamlien-Castro stated that among her group’s diverse positions on county growth and development, the creation of sustainable affordable housing should be one of their top concerns.

“It is a compelling fact that according to the county’s own comprehensive plan nearly 70 percent of the county residents depart the county for work – meaning from just a traffic perspective, 70 percent of the workforce in the county [is] commuting to the county. And a great deal of that workforce is in the service industry and live in the so-called ‘affordable housing’ – outside the county,” Gamlien-Castro said. “Smart growth deigns to weave all housing types into communities such that this kind of massive movement in/out is reduced or at least better managed.”

‘I knew that wasn't right’

Mills said that an example of “affordable housing” being demonized locally happened in 2015 when pressure from the community led the Board of Commissioners to vote against applying for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development which would have provided the county about $700,000 a year for different projects in the community.

"We had voted yes to do it and then it got twisted into that the sky was falling,” she said. "It became such a big political thing … all these people started emailing and our mailboxes started blowing up."

That money could have paved the way for more affordable housing in the county by clearing areas of blight, laying sewer and to incentivize groups like Habitat for Humanity to come into more areas of the county to build, Mills said.

"You would be able to clean out abandoned trailers that have been left ... to use those funds to do that or run sewer, so then maybe you'd get Habitat for Humanity to come in and build townhomes and not displace people,” she said.

But from talking to officials in other counties like Hall and Gwinnett, which have accepted a CDBG, Mills said that they knew those funds could have helped the county with anything, from improving transportation needs of local groups like Creative Enterprises, to building a new local mental health day center to help rehabilitate people out of prison.

“It got turned into that it was all about housing, and I knew that wasn't right," she said.

The county originally qualified for about $700,000 in CDBG funding each year, but Mills believes today that amount would be closer to $2 million.

One Forsyth County native and local real estate manager, Andy Coleman, said that in his opinion, no matter how much funding the CDBG would have brought into the county, the strings attached to it would have had far-reaching negative impacts on the community.

He said that finding solutions to problems with things like federal subsidies or by allowing a lower standard of housing in the county would end up being more harmful in the long run.

“Government's role in housing is a very slippery slope,” Coleman said. “Specifically, when the federal government brings in subsidies to localities. As a very staunch fiscal conservative and limited federal government advocate, I will always plead with our elected officials to keep things as local as possible.”

Coleman also said that his heart goes out to the people of the Orchard Apartments and anyone who might be displaced from their homes, stating that it’s up to the community to help them out.

“It's always a tough pill to swallow when anyone is displaced; even more so for the very young, old, or disabled,” he said. “I like to think that our community has many outstanding organizations that can help those in need, and I am personally very willing to give my time and financial support to those organizations.”