Over a span of seven years, the average sale price of a home in Forsyth County has risen by more than $100,000.
In terms of both average home value and listing price, Forsyth County tops the charts when compared to Fulton, Dawson, Cobb, Hall, Gwinnett counties and the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell metro area, according to Zillow.com. Compared to those areas, average home prices are between $10,000 and $100,000 higher in Forsyth County.
MEDIAN SALE PRICE OF FORSYTH COUNTY HOMES BY YEAR
As house prices rise and more people come to Forsyth County for its opportunities in business and reputable schools, the question has to be asked: where is the growth headed?
In late August, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners heard an update to the county’s economic development plan from the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce and Austin-based TIP Strategies. At that meeting, TIP representatives stated that to improve economically the county faces several challenges in transportation, housing and perception.
But for many county residents, some of those challenges are here today, impacting their daily life, career and future, as they attempt to carve out a life for themselves in one of the most prosperous communities in Georgia.
‘Residency is not required’
When one looks at the hard numbers of what it costs to live in Forsyth County, it’s not hard to imagine why certain prospective residents might get discouraged when looking for houses for sale or rent in the county.
According to data from Zillow.com, the median listing price for a home in Forsyth is $388,990 compared to Fulton ($379,900), Dawson ($325,000), Cherokee ($324,658), Cobb ($310,000), Hall ($309,420) and Gwinnett ($280,000) counties.
MEDIAN HOME LISTING PRICE BY COUNTY
Meanwhile, the average value of a home in Forsyth is $332,000, well above Fulton ($269,000), Cobb ($245,900), Dawson ($240,500), Gwinnett ($221,200) and Hall ($185,300).
Currently, Forsyth County is known as one of the most desirable bedroom communities in the metro Atlanta area. As many as 51 percent of working residents travel out of county, according to an estimate from the 2016 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.
For the county’s largest employer, Forsyth County Schools, District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said that approximately 64 percent of the 5,402 employees live predominantly in the county. Mills also estimated that about 70 percent of county government employees live in the county, while the remaining 30 percent live in surrounding counties.
According to Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman, approximately 54 percent of Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office staff lives in the county and 46 percent live outside, but the trend is beginning to flip the other way as more and more new hires come in from out of the county.
Freeman said he expects that in the future their demographics could flip-flop so that the majority of staff lives outside, with a core of more veteran staff living inside.
"I think that there are a lot of things that play into that," Freeman said. "But affordability could definitely be part of it."
Freeman said that, generally speaking, where deputies live doesn't affect how they perform on the job, but he said that in theory it does remove them from the community.
"One could make the case that if you live here, you are more invested. But from what I have seen that's not accurate," Freeman said. "Everyone is so enthusiastic, we never have any problems finding people to come and be a part of the community.”
Freeman said that, for now, he doesn’t worry about where his deputies live, but it will be something he keeps in mind as their numbers grow and shift.
According to Division Chief Jason Shivers of the Forsyth County Fire Department, out of the 196 fire department employees, only 72 live in Forsyth County. He said that over the past 20 years, the number of employees living in the county has slowly shrunk – while out of county hires have grown.
“I was in the first class of paid firefighters 20 years ago, and I am certain that that has been the trend,” Shivers said.
Shivers himself has never lived in Forsyth County, choosing instead to live farther north in Lumpkin County. Shivers said he’s seen local firefighters live all over north Georgia and sometimes even out of state.
“Residency (in Forsyth County) is not required,” Shivers said. “I think that it boils down to the fact that this is a great place to work … and it’s a testament to our recruiting efforts far and wide.”
For non-government employees, Mills said that commissioners are aware that many residents work two or three jobs to live in Forsyth County for its opportunities, schools and standard of living.
Mills suggested that by having a bedroom community where employees have to commute to get to work, she fears they are putting more cars on the road and causing more traffic problems.
But in Forsyth County Commission Chairman Todd Levent’s opinion, the idea of many workers commuting into the county to work isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I would think that a 30-minute commute is fairly normal,” Levent said. “So if someone had to live in Hall County or Dawson County or Cherokee County, some people like to act like that’s terrible, but if it’s a 30-minute commute and they choose to live there so they can get more house for their money ... what’s wrong with that?”
‘A balancing act of both sides’
According to Levent, there is no affordable housing problem in Forsyth County. Levent says there is a sufficient number of apartment complexes, trailer parks and more modest homes that can be found around the county.
Levent suggests that there actually might be a disparity of higher-end, million-dollar-plus homes in the community – homes that he says might be key to improving the county’s economic status.
“When I talk to the real professionals on how to try to bring higher-end jobs and businesses to the community to help balance our digest, they’ll tell you it’s not just affordable housing you have to think about, it’s about balancing it to accommodate all the needs for the future of your community," Levent said.
In his view, Levent said the free market in the county is healthy and working, and if price demographics are shifting that is just where the market is currently at.
For Mills, this issue touches a fine line between allowing the free market to thrive and helping to encourage positive economic growth in the county.
“I first and foremost believe in the free market ... but I don't think that we have a population that can sustain that economic development,” Mills said. “You want to have thriving restaurants, and you want to have all these different commercial manufacturers, and try to draw all these companies in. Well, you've got to have people to work in those companies, and you've got to have a place for them to live."
Mills said the county doesn’t know what housing is available because they have never done a study to determine what is out there.
“Maybe we've got a lot of homes that are in the 200s or 150s; maybe we do and we just don't know,” Mills said. “Maybe there are a lot of resales that are in that category. Maybe there’s a lot more rentals than we think ... We've never had a housing study, so how would we know?”
A 2016 study by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that most homes in Forsyth County – about 32.6 percent – were valued between $300,000 to $499,999, followed by home valued at $200,00 to $299,999 (28.1 percent) and $150,000 to $199,999 (13.1 percent).
More than 10 percent of Forsyth County homes (6,468 units) were worth $500,000 to $999,999. Another 518 Forsyth County homes – a little under 1 percent – were valued at more than $1 million.
NUMBER OF FORSYTH COUNTY HOMES BY VALUE
What Mills said the county does know is that developers seem unwilling or unable to build homes for under $250,000, citing high development costs and the price of running sewer.
And despite the massive impact that the county’s unified development code has on what developments are able to be built in the county, Levent believes it is the developers and land owners that play the largest role in deciding what a residence will cost to perspective buyers.
"The developers and land owners are choosing to put bigger houses on that land,” Levent said. “We are not making them do it.”
Levent said that in recent years the commissioners have pulled back from granting higher density zonings that would allow more apartments and cluster homes until the county and state infrastructure is in a place to handle more residents.
“And that’s why a lot of these changes took place,” Levent said. “Because the state was 20 years behind on widening their roads, the county was about 10 years behind, the schools were about four or five years behind on building schools ... so we pulled back on giving these high-density zonings.”
A point that both Mills and Levent agree on is that by bringing more mixed-use spaces into the county, like Halcyon in south Forsyth and Avalon in Alpharetta, they could potentially kill several birds with one stone.
For Mills, mixed-use developments could be a way of introducing more high-density housing into the community while at the same time tying it to the community as a functional space with many incentives to retain its upkeep 10, 15 or 20 years down the line. Levent said that mixed-use developments might be a way of drawing millennials who want more nightlife and retirees who want to downsize into the county.
But in 2017, a previous Board of Commissioners including both Mills and Levent denied the proposed apartments that would have been built at The Collection in south Forsyth, even though they were told that the development couldn’t survive without it. The vote was split, with Mills voting in favor of the apartments.
Today, the Halcyon mixed-use development is underway in south Forsyth and slated to open in March 2019 with 230 homes for sale and 460 apartments.
‘No good recourse’
For local organizations that deal with families in need, the issue of affordable housing is much more black and white — no houses that families can afford means more families living in extended-stay motels, doubling up in homes, living in a shelter or sleeping unsheltered in a vehicle, tent or other structure.
This week, a spokesperson for the Forsyth County school system stated that there are currently over 330 homeless students registered for the 2019 school year.
Each of those students, and their families, will be living in a chaotic, constantly-changing situation, and local groups blame that on affordability.
According to Tina Huck, executive director at Family Promise, at any given time they support as many as a dozen people with safe shelters, meals and other resources through their network of partner churches.
Huck said that the majority of the people they serve have fallen on hard times for a variety of different reasons and just need a little bump to escape the cycle of homelessness.
"When families come to us, we work with them to get a job and help keep stability in the children’s lives," Huck said.
But Huck said that Family Promise can only do so much to help families find homes in the community when many jobs pay minimum wage or a little more. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of housing per month for a family of four in Forsyth County is $1,229, well more than Gwinnett ($1,093), Cherokee ($1,059), Cobb ($1,055), Fulton ($1,049), Dawson ($1,023) and Hall ($847) counties. A family of four would need to earn a household income of $86,874 to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living in Forsyth County.
AVERAGE COST OF HOUSING PER MONTH BY COUNTY
But a 2016 study by the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that of the more than 66,500 households in the county at that time, 40 percent made less than $75,000 a year.
"When you think about the fact that we have families who may be making $10 an hour for their job, and let’s say they are working a full 40 hours … their gross monthly pay is only $1,600,” Huck said. “Then you take taxes off of that. The amount they can afford to live is almost nonexistent within this county."
This, Huck said, has led to many of their clients to live at hotels and motels which allow residents to pay week to week but also sometimes trap residents in an expensive cycle where they can’t afford to move out.
"Unfortunately, people are staying in those places for quite a long time," Huck said.
Huck said that even more families are living doubled up with family, friends or acquaintances, with handshake deals, no guarantees and a welcome mat that regularly wears out. In those circumstances, families have no good recourse and no protection from being taken advantage of.
Huck said that they fear that as the county grows the number of homeless will grow with it, and unless more affordable housing options emerge those people will have nowhere to go.
"We have really got to address that issue, or our issue of having more and more families who are experiencing homelessness is just going to continue," Huck said. "There are a few housing options, don't get me wrong; we have found homes for all of our families as they graduate. But it's very minimal."
Huck said Family Promise was able to place several families at the Abbington at Haw Creek apartment complex after it opened earlier this year.
But with Abbington, like many of the other more affordable apartment options in the county, Huck said vacancies “filled up in a snap” or have waiting lists that could take months if not years.
To make matters even worse, Mills said it was unlikely that another apartment complex like Abbington could be built in the county any time soon.
"I don't know how anything could get zoned now," Mills said.