Brookhaven, GA, June 5, 2017 – Opinion by Brookhaven Resident, Conor Sen – In Brookhaven’s young life as a city we have dealt with a myriad of challenges, among them forming a new government and police force, addressing the deferred maintenance of our parks and roads, and trying to keep up with real estate development pressures that have moved outward from Midtown to Buckhead to our own city. I want to write about a challenge that hasn’t gotten as much attention but I believe will become more of a strain on our city over the next few years, the growing shortage of affordable housing and service workers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that the national unemployment rate has fallen to 4.3%, its lowest level since 2001. For workers, this is a welcome development, as they have more employment options than they’ve had for years. But for local businesses and communities it presents a challenge. After eating lunch at Newk’s at Town Brookhaven this week I decided to walk the main loop to see how many “now hiring” signs there were in storefront windows. Yogurtland had one. Which Wich had one. So did Flying Biscuit, Tropical Smoothie Cafe, and Moe’s. The soon-to-open PizzaFire had one, and presumably HobNob, which is also coming soon, is looking for people as well. When you walk into LA Fitness you’ll see a now hiring sign. This isn’t just a Town Brookhaven thing — you’ll see now hiring signs up and down the Buford Highway corridor at various restaurants and in Plaza Fiesta. Pay attention when you go out — you’ll be surprised at how prevalent they’ve become.
While the economic cycle plays a part, our city’s growing shortage of service workers is directly related to changes in our housing market. We’re fortunate to live in one of the most desirable and sought-after communities in all of metro Atlanta. But that asset is also a liability as it relates to affordable housing. Having recently gone through the home-buying process my wife and I were floored at the state of the Brookhaven housing market. We saw “tear down houses” in Ashford Park selling for $400,000 and up. A quick search on Zillow showed that only one detached single family house built in Brookhaven in 2017 has been listed for under $800,000. There are townhouses on Hermance Drive near Town Brookhaven being listed for over $900,000.
As an investment adviser and a writer for Bloomberg View I have friends ask me if I think we’re in another bubble. But, again having just gone through the process myself, I’ve seen how onerous getting a mortgage has become. Every single source of income and assets is scrutinized and verified. Levels of speculation and leverage are low — nothing like what we saw in the middle of the last decade during the housing bubble. The Millennial generation, the large generation of people born roughly between the early 1980’s and late 1990’s, is just beginning to age into its prime home-buying years, let alone Millennials wealthy enough to afford to buy in Brookhaven. If anything we’re arguably at the tail end of an apartment cycle and at the beginning of the home-buying cycle. When we tear down older, affordable housing to build newer, luxury housing our challenges related to affordable housing are going to grow and grow.
I’ve had the honor of serving on the Brookhaven Planning Commission for over a year now. I’ve been heartened at how engaged the community has been about all aspects of the city’s development, and at the desire of my fellow Planning Commissioners to listen and do our best to address the community’s concerns to build a better Brookhaven. I know how much we all care. Some of our challenges as a city are felt immediately and visible every day — traffic, school overcrowding, trees being cut down, disruptions related to construction. Affordable housing and service labor might not be as noticeable, especially for those of us fortunate enough to be homeowners.
But a city with the foresight to develop a tree ordinance and have a full-time city arborist should think about how economic changes are impacting our city and its ability to attract and retain citizens and workers across the socioeconomic spectrum. This means not just police officers and teachers, but also healthcare workers, cooks, cashiers, childcare workers, landscapers, and housekeepers. If service workers can’t afford to live in Brookhaven they’ll have to come from somewhere else. Some may be able to take MARTA but for most that probably means driving, and more traffic. And the tighter the job market is, the less likely it is that someone will make the commute from Kennesaw or Gwinnett County to sling burgers or bus tables. If the shortage becomes acute enough it may threaten the viability of Brookhaven as a city where service businesses can operate, a challenge the San Francisco Bay Area is confronting.
As a young city with an engaged, informed citizenry we can do anything we set our minds to. And in our short time as a city we’ve done some great things. As we think about how to build a better, more sustainable Brookhaven, let’s ensure that it remains a place where residents, workers, and businesses of all stripes can thrive.
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