September 30, 2023 5:28 pm

Local News

Bill Lifting Local Control on House Construction Sparks Debate in Georgia House Committee Hearing

Credit: iStock

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder

A Georgia House panel on Tuesday aired out much-debated sweeping legislation that would prevent local governments from regulating everything from the color of a home’s exterior to the amount of vinyl siding to whether a home can be built on a concrete slab.

Macon Republican Rep. Dale Washburn presented his two companion bills during Tuesday’s House Governmental Affairs subcommittee meeting that he said will make new houses more affordable for first-time buyers who he says are priced out of the market because of overreaching local building codes. There is fierce opposition to House Bill 517 from local government officials who don’t want to be handcuffed in determining design and zoning standards that fit into their communities. They fear that shoddy new rental housing will be built under the guise of filling Georgia’s workforce housing shortage.

Washburn, with 47 years working in real estate, chaired a House study committee that spent several months last year hearing from housing, business, and government experts about how to build more homes to accommodate Georgia’s growing labor force.

His bill requires local governments to issue building permits for single-family homes that measure 1,200 to 2,500 square feet and meet the state building code minimum. 

House Bill 517 would exempt residences located in designated historic districts or housing that is subject to a private covenant and contractual agreements like a neighborhood homeowners association.

“This is about workforce housing,” Washburn said. “But it is also about the little first-time homebuyer who would like to buy a home and often they can’t afford to buy one where they’d like to buy because a local city council is telling them if you build a house in our city, we want you to build it according to our taste.”

Wasburn’s push to restrict local control aligns with a report published in 2022 by the National Association of Home Builders and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which estimated that local government regulations, such as building codes and architectural design standards, drove up the cost of building a home in Georgia by 4% more than the national average.

Tifton Mayor and real estate agent Julie Smith said the legislation removes vital public input from local citizens working with their elected officials to establish standards that are appropriate for each community.

“Anytime that we do anything on a local level, we have public hearings,” said Smith, who is also the president of the Georgia Municipal Association. “They’re heard by our planning and zoning boards which are people, residents of our community who have volunteered their time to be a part of this.”

Over the last year, housing prices have risen dramatically as inflation has increased the price of building materials and mortgage interest rates. Private equity firms made the housing shortage worse, snapping up large numbers of houses in Georgia communities metro Atlanta.

As of the start of 2021, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Atlanta was $1,800 a month. It’s now $2,300, according to the rental platform Zumper.

Several housing design bills have been introduced in the Georgia Legislature over the past few years that pit real estate developers and homebuilders against city and county government organizations trying to defend community design standards. 

This bill appears as a giveaway to the builders who want to eliminate standards and to maintain an even larger profit value. It introduces the concept of build fast, build cheap and after they’re gone the consequences will be left in the hands of the local governments.

– Sarita Dyer, McDonough resident

Another controversial housing measure that’s alive in the Senate chamber is Senate Bill 188, which promotes build-to-rent residences by barring local governments from denying permits or making landlords pay business taxes.

The build-to-rent market is increasing in popularity among corporate real estate developers that are building neighborhoods of rental properties of townhouses and other single family residences in place of the traditional apartment complexes.

Build-to-rent markets are growing in popularity among corporate real estate developers who build neighborhoods filled with townhouses and other single-family rental properties rather than traditional apartment buildings.

At Tuesday’s hearing, McDonough resident Sarita Dyer said that reducing local oversight will result in more homes built with aluminum and vinyl siding and other inexpensive materials that will only worsen living conditions.

“This bill appears as a giveaway to the builders who want to eliminate standards and to maintain an even larger profit value,” she said. “It introduces the concept of build fast, build cheap and after they’re gone the consequences will be left in the hands of the local governments.”

Washburn criticized recommendations made by the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia as last-ditch pleas to giving more local control and increasing government bureaucracy while seeking to use state money to incentivize developers to build more homes.

Washburn said his housing plans have the support of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Association of Realtors, the Georgia Association of Homebuilders and Georgia Habitat for Humanity.

“That document they gave me is nothing but a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo about creating statewide housing zones and giving them more power and giving more state money to help with the problem,” Washburn said.

Riverdale Democratic Rep. Rhonda Burnough, along with other legislators, questioned rolling back restrictions that would limit lot sizes and other aspects of housing quality that some communities find important.

Most people expect their city council member or county commissioner, or someone with zoning and code enforcement to handle housing code problems, she said.

“So if we’re taking this (local) power away in these areas, where will (residents) come to make their complaints,” Burnough said.

The bill does not take away any power from code enforcement, Washburn said.

“None of this bill takes any of that away from the city and counties as far as inferior properties that are in bad repair and those kinds of things,” he said. “This is purely about new permitting and not requiring a house to be 2,000 square feet in size and all brick with no vinyl siding.”

Austin Hackney, government affairs director for the state’s home builders association, said that the legislation won’t impact the state code that already incorporates safe building protocols that can differ from the mountains in northeast Georgia to coastal areas that are more prone to tropical storms.

He said that families in the working and middle classes should not have to pay thousands of dollars in extra costs simply to meet aesthetics set by local boards or for purchasing a larger piece of property than they actually need.

“We’re in a housing affordability crisis,” Hackney said. “This is something we could do that would literally not require new homes to cost more than they have to.”

Another Washburn bill restricts local governments from issuing new construction moratoriums to 180 days and requires that revenue from permitting fees be used only to cover related administration and inspection costs.

House Bill 514 would allow counties and cities to remove impact fees that cover wastewater treatment, roads, public safety facilities, and other public infrastructure costs in order to encourage development.

City and county associations recommended extending the building moratorium during emergencies, such as natural disasters, and while local officials rewrite zoning regulations or conduct a planning study.

“We agree that the moratorium should not be indefinite and should not be used as a method to stop development,” said Todd Edwards, deputy legislative director with Georgia’s county association.

This story was written by Stanley Dunlap, a reporter for the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.

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