State group meets in Dalton, pushing for more housing

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Patterson Farms in Whitfield County is seen on Aug. 11. Robert Sivick, Whitfield County administrator, said the development is a sign of progress toward meeting a pressing need for housing.

A statewide housing task force had its first meeting in Dalton, Georgia, late last month, and county officials are working to meet the task force's goal of increasing housing.

"We all agree that there is a severe housing shortage," Robert Sivick, Whitfield County administrator, said of the groups participating in the state task force.

The Housing Access and Affordability Task Force stakeholders include the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, the Georgia Association of Realtors, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Municipal Association, the Home Builders Association of Georgia and Habitat for Humanity, according to a task force fact sheet provided by Sivick.

The fact sheet said Georgia has a housing crisis and more housing is needed, but there is a conflict between potential first-time homeowners and current homeowners who "want a quality of life unimpaired by growth."

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In a phone call, Sivick said the Whitfield County government represents all residents, and building more housing is in the interest of the broader community. Local government has an obligation to plan for future generations, he said.

"We have to resist the path of least resistance which is to simply say no to housing if somebody or half a dozen people show up to a meeting to object to it," he said. "That does not reflect the population as a whole, and it certainly does not reflect the market forces."

Local government's zoning and fees are often what stands in the way of the market-based housing construction, he said.

Meanwhile, a citizens group, Whitfield County Meetings, has formed, saying citizens have been shut out of the development process in Whitfield County and the current property tax system punishes current homeowners as communities grow.

A written statement from Whitfield County Meetings said the group was formed because citizens are being ignored by Whitfield County government. The group has nearly 550 followers on Facebook and often posts information on upcoming real estate developments and other county-level government business.

"Whitfield county residents are being priced out of rents and mortgages," the group's statement said. "Families who have lived here for generations can't afford the high property tax."

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New housing developments are driving property values higher, the statement said, punishing property owners who don't want to sell to new residents or developers.

The statement said members of Whitfield County Meetings have been denied a seat on county bodies related to planning and development despite multiple attempts.

The statement said the group is not against high-density building but pointed to Chattanooga's East Brainerd and Ooltewah as examples of rapidly growing areas that are "a nightmare of overcrowded roads, overcrowded schools and services unable to grow quickly to meet the new needs of the community."

Sivick said there isn't any group set up on the county level similar to the task force to encourage housing, but that is a possibility. In his role, he said he doesn't make public policy, but does offer advice to elected officials.

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People who oppose development are already being heard by elected officials, he said, because they're older, more financially secure and have the time to show up to government meetings and get involved.

"We are hearing from them," Sivick said, "but what we're not hearing from is the young people, perhaps, who are living in close quarters or having to have a long commute to Dalton every morning because there's nothing available here. Those folks simply don't have the time to show up at a meeting and say build housing, build housing."

Development and infrastructure investment does raise the value of property, he said, and that could be a windfall for those landowners and current homeowners selling their homes.

"We certainly don't want a situation where we're not engaging in real estate development just to keep the value of property low," he said.

Whitfield County shouldn't build housing just to build it, Sivick said, adding that many communities made that mistake from 2005 to 2008, but market pressures need to be considered. Leadership means you're not always popular, and it's often easier to do nothing, but Sivick said he thinks Whitfield County needs to have the courage to build.

(READ MORE: Whitfield County Board of Assessors reverse property value reassessment)

Progress is being made, Sivick said at a recent County Commission meeting, referring to new apartment complexes being built as well as the housing developments Patterson Farms and Camden Farms underway.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at [email protected] or 423-757-6659.