Twenty-nine-year-old Carrie Ray and her fiancé Shade Shaw, 31, have come to treasure their small camper that’s now located in Dawson County.
“It’s not the biggest thing in the world, but it’s a huge blessing to us,” Ray said.
The camper, equipped with the ability to switch between propane and electric power, is a welcome change from the four months they spent living out of their car this past spring and summer and previously staying in a tent for two-and-a-half years.
“We should have enough saved for a down payment for a house in February or March,” Shaw said. “Once we’ve got several thousand [dollars], we’re going to help somebody else out and give them the camper.”
“It’s a stepping stone,” Shaw added, “but I thank God every day for it, because if we didn’t have this, we’d have nothing.”
These are the types of challenges people face when trying to look for a roof over their heads amidst a nationwide housing crisis, particularly in growing rural areas like Dawsonville.
This story continues below.
The crunch on available housing isn’t unique to Dawson County, as people in many other towns and cities across the United States are being impacted by the issue.
When they moved to the Dawson area two years ago, Ray and Shaw first worked fast food jobs before starting at a Dahlonega warehouse.
After getting a car, their landlord at the time said they had to leave. So they turned to the vehicle for shelter.
“We had a little box car. We’d pack clothes and stuff under the seats, put a mattress down over the seats and sleep in store parking lots,” she said. “We also had a tent and slept at a couple of campgrounds.”
There were some unintended costs, like the regular car bills, which Ray described as their biggest bills, and $700 or so of her insulin getting ruined by the summer heat.
During their time living in the car, Ray also found out she was pregnant.
They still saved enough money up for a potential move, but multiple housing opportunities fell through when places rented out before they could lock one down.
When they were in Dawsonville about three months ago, Ray called The Place of Dawson County at RIC-Rack. The nonprofit’s Dawson outreach coordinator, Amy Palmer, gave them a list of affordable housing options, but none were really open, Ray said.
Ray and Shaw filled out an application for the camper, and then they waited. They stayed at a hotel for about a month, spending $1,600 on lodging.
Then, the night before they were about to go back to living in the car, they were notified—they’d gotten the camper.
Finding a lot on which to place the camper was another issue entirely. They contacted 31 different mobile home and camper sites, from the Dawsonville and Dahlonega areas all the way to White County before finally setting their camper up on a lot in Blairsville.
Ray and her fiancé stayed there with the camper until recently because it was the “only place we could find with an open camper lot.”
She called the location a “relief,” even though it was an hour-and-nine-minute commute one way to or from work for them. And now she’s dually grateful for the chance to move their camper onto a relative’s property in Dawson County.
The new location is closer to work and her OBGYN doctor, which is particularly important now that she’s 35 weeks pregnant.
Two weeks ago, her doctor put her on bed rest, so she took maternity leave from the warehouse.
She’s also concerned because in addition to the diabetes, she’s been told her daughter will likely have to stay in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) once she is born.
“All the stress that I’ve undergone has brought me to this point,” Ray said.
Population and wages
Dawson County is among northern Georgia’s growing counties, with the population increasing 4,468 people or 20 percent over the past decade, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
Dawsonville’s population similarly increased by 1,184 people, or 46.69 percent.
During the Dawson County Board of Commissioners’ Aug. 4 voting session, Habitat for Humanity VP of Development & Strategic Initiatives Sabrina Kirkland predicted about a million people would move from the city of Atlanta into more northern suburban areas, such as Dawson County. Habitat for Humanity of North Central Georgia covers Dawson, Forsyth, north Fulton and Cherokee counties.
“The biggest thing I want to tell you…is that it’s going to be a crunch on everyone,” Kirkland told the board.
Part of the issue has to do with workers’ wages. Dawson County’s Director of Economic Development, Kevin Herrit, provided Georgia Department of Labor preliminary numbers for employee wages during the first quarter of 2022.
Across industries in the county, the average weekly wage was $729 for all 893 counted establishments. For Dawson County’s 185 counted retail businesses, many of which are concentrated along Ga. 400, workers’ weekly wages were $557.
“When we think about the jobs we ‘want’ in terms of higher-paying wages, we have fewer of them, and when we think about the jobs paying least, we have more of those,” DADC chair Brian Trapnell said at the May 5 BOC meeting. “What that tells us is that we have an opportunity to grow with our existing workforce and help them be more successful and earn more wages over time.”
Despite a generally cooling housing market, Redfin still considered the Dawsonville-area market “very competitive.”
In August 2022, Dawson County homes sold for a median price of $437,780, according to local real estate firm Keller Williams Community Partners. That’s a 31.1% year-over-year increase.
Realtor Kristie Myers-Homans with Coldwell Banker reported similar results for Dawson County based on Georgia FMLS statistics, not accounting for private sales.
The average price point for a home in the county dropped from a June high of $605,000 to $485,000 in August. That’s still ahead of the average 2020 price of $355,000, Myers-Homans said.
For perspective, $431,000 is the amount that a 2021 Georgia Tech analysis called the “break-even point,” or minimum amount to cover county services, for a Dawson County home.
During the Sept. 15 BOC meeting, area developer Billy Stark pinned the break-even price at around $463,000.
With a little over half of the 200 usually expected homes in local inventory, Myers-Homans added that houses are coming onto the market at a slower rate, and price drops are not uncommon as the housing bubble decreases and prices begin to stabilize.
As well, inflation concerns over the past year have continued to impact prices with supply and labor costs as well as interest rates.
At the start of 2022, the average interest rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was just over 3%. Now, after the Federal Reserve raising rates multiple times in an attempt to control inflation, it’s passed 6%, according to Bankrate.com.
In June and July 2022, people looking for a $300,000 house who prequalified for a loan with an interest rate between 3.8-4% were “already disappointed” with their options, Myers-Homans said.
“Now that’s whittled down even more,” she said, referring to rising interest rates. “There’s not a lot of inventory [in Dawson] for $300,000…and for people looking under $200,000, most won’t qualify for financing.”
“Having a wide variety of housing options helps a community grow and maintain a sustainable population. One of the hard things for our community is that housing prices have quickly inflated in a short amount of time.”Kevin Herrit, Dawson County Director of Economic Development
People trying to rent often face similar financial barriers. Housing affordability was calculated by looking at median weekly wages for Dawson County workers overall and retail workers specifically. Similar to sister publication The Times, DCN also used a 2.5% ratio of annual income to determine affordability.
Dawson workers earning the average wage receive $2,916 a month in gross income. In order to not be cost burdened, the max rent for a single person earning those wages would be $948.
For retail workers, the amount would be $724. With two-income households, that would put the max housing cost for Dawson workers generally at $1,896 a month or $1,448 for retail employees specifically.
These general numbers do not consider how a specific person or family’s differences in spending and cost of living may impact what they’re able to afford.
However, for many people and their families, their wages are not increasing at the same rate as housing costs, with prices for many units within the $1,000-$1,500-a-month range or higher in Forsyth and Dawson counties.
During an interview, The Place’s Director of Client Services, Paige Whalen, pointed out how many people seeking housing in Forsyth and Dawson counties either don’t make enough to qualify for an apartment or struggle to scrape together a security deposit or first month’s rent.
Her colleague, Dawson outreach coordinator Amy Palmer, added that people can become focused on collecting the money to get into a place, only to become discouraged when the next month’s rent is due, and they face home insecurity again.
The Place has also just dispersed its highest amount of rental assistance ever for Dawson County. As of September 2022, $20,686 has been distributed to 39 Dawson clients. By the end of the year, that’s projected to be an increase from the $22,389 given to 36 people in 2021.
Already, the 2022 figures are also double the $10,286 given in 2019 and almost double the 20 people who received rental assistance.
“We expect those numbers for 2022 to continue growing,” Whalen said.
Whalen also explained that while it can be difficult to track housing insecurity, 37 clients marked their addresses as “homeless.”
“With most of them that have come in, 99.9 percent of their leases have gone up between $200 to $500,” Whalen said. “I can only think of one person that while they had trouble paying rent, the landlord had kept their rent the same for the past six years. And that’s because the landlord understood that person was on a fixed income with medical issues and did that out of the graciousness of his heart.”
“That cost is pushing seniors out of their own housing, and many of them were renting at reduced amounts. Landlords can find people who will fill that and pay the price.”Paige Whalen, Director of Client Services for The Place of Forsyth County
“You used to be able to go look for places, and you could find something by the end of the day,” Shaw said.
Now, that’s not as easy, he said, with some landlords wanting first and last month’s rent as well as a security deposit to move into a place.
Ray added that it’s “way too expensive for blue collar, hard working people” to live in the Dawsonville area given the type of money people now have to have in hand when securing a place to live.
“How can anybody afford that when they’re just working day-to-day jobs?,” Ray said.
Mobile homes, which have traditionally been seen as more affordable options, are renting in the region for $1,300 a month, said Whalen. A landlord will charge it, because they know even if one tenant can’t afford it, “five people are waiting to get into that place.”
Former Ninth District Opportunity coordinator for Dawson County, Sharon Fox, who’s now retired, was also interviewed about housing.
Fox mentioned how some tenants stopped paying rents around the time courts closed because of the pandemic, putting land and rental owners in a difficult position. Landlords facing those types of situations increased rent “$300 to $400,” Fox estimated.
Palmer called it a “compounding issue” that many clients don’t have phones or transportation, which Whalen said “affects everything.”
At the height of the gas increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Place saw an influx of people asking for gas money to be able to get to work, so that they could have a roof over their heads and food. Without that transportation access, Whalen said many of those people impacted have found themselves “in a crisis again.”
Palmer said The Place’s programs for bagged food and understanding benefits help clients save money to go toward rent for sustainable housing.
A supply issue
In her August comments to the Board of Commissioners, Sabrina Kirkland pinpointed lacking workforce housing as a key impact of the housing crisis.
“There’s not enough supply to meet the demands of the population,” Whalen said.
“If they don't live in the county where they work,” Fox said of workers, “that $11-12 an hour becomes $8-9 with the price of fuel…but incomes didn’t go up.”
The founder of urban planning firm Opticos Design, Daniel Parolek, coined the term “missing middle housing” to describe housing that could help fill the availability gap.
These types of residences, from duplexes to multiplexes and townhomes or live-work-play-style units, are generally missing because of zoning regulations, according to the missingmiddlehousing.com website.
Those units are considered “middle” because the types, size and number of units fall in between single-family detached and apartments. These residences can be owned or rented and may help support more affordable, walkable neighborhoods, the website said.
The City of Gainesville’s 2022 Comprehensive Plan, as reported by sister publication The Times, also pointed to the necessity of the similar naturally-occurring affordable housing, rental units that “maintain low rents without federal subsidy.”
This includes rental buildings, complexes and/or detached housing built between 1940-1990 priced between $500-$1,200, so low or moderate-income households making between 30-80% of area median income can afford to live there.
As the economic development director, Kevin Herrit added that housing can best be “viewed as steps,” as people typically move out of their parents’ house, save money, get a starter home and then grow their family before downsizing later in life.
“Having a wide variety of housing options helps a community grow and maintain a sustainable population,” Herrit said. “One of the hard things for our community is that housing prices have quickly inflated in a short amount of time.”
Herrit mentioned Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) programs that have been around for several years.
“They are designed to help create affordable housing by allowing developers to sell off the tax credits and generate capital to build residential housing,” he said.
In those cases, landlords can raise rent no more than 5% a year, and prices are typically based on a percentage of area median income.
The LIHTC program “provides an incentive to build housing at a price point that the normal market is not creating,” Herrit added.
Over the past three years, much of the residential rezones approved in Dawson County have been for single-family detached homes, though the Board of Commissioners has approved rezones for multifamily apartment projects on or near Ga. 400.
Last fall, county commissioners and the DADC also approved bonds for the Peaks of Dawsonville complex. Per the LIHTC Program, The Peaks of Dawsonville will target a portion of its units to lower-income families who earn up to 50 and 60 percent of the Area Median Household Income (AMHI).
Public officials and Dawson residents alike have shared concerns, particularly over the last year, about the density of housing, given how population growth can strain area infrastructure like roads, emergency services and parks.
Entangled with the local housing crisis are the financial needs associated with bringing county infrastructure up to par to support past and future expected growth.
That’s something public officials like District 2 Commissioner Chris Gaines have addressed repeatedly in recent months.
The BOC has mulled over the feasibility of mixed-use village zoning as a possible solution, citing walkability and the need for more commercial revenue. For example, both the approved Kilough Point rezone and the withdrawn Etowah Bluffs proposal included mixed-use elements in their tentative plans.
According to the 2021 Georgia Tech analysis for Dawson County, the county’s residential digest doesn’t fully pay for its services.
DADC chair Brian Trapnell likewise has said the county’s tax collections are being driven by residential land uses, which comprise 68% of 2021 tax collections and only make about $61,000 an acre versus $75,000 an acre for commercial or industrial uses.
Special purpose local options sales tax (SPLOST) VI and VII funds are expected to address current and future growth-related infrastructure needs.
The Dawson County government is in the process of reevaluating their impact fees as part of the current moratorium until Nov. 2 on new residential rezoning applications.
Impact fees are imposed to allow for a project developer to pay part or all of the costs associated with providing public services (Fire, EMS, etc.) to the development.
The city of Dawsonville is likewise working toward a study for impact fees, which it doesn’t currently charge.
A transportation SPLOST or TSPLOST could also raise money for fixing roads. Previously, Dawson County voters rejected that kind of measure in June 2020.
As well, working with entities like the Georgia Department of Transportation can streamline gathering traffic data and planning and executing projects where state roadways are involved.
The Georgia Mountains Regional Commission can also help with planning for development, as DCN reported regarding the city’s move toward doing an impact fee study.
Multiple residents opposed to the current growth in the county have mentioned concerns about crime.
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson shared his opinion on whether there’s a link between apartments and crime based on his law enforcement experience.
Johnson confirmed a general correlation between a growing population and an increase in crime “simply due to greater opportunities.”
Previously, Johnson and Senior Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer, who oversees cases in Dawson County, spoke about the growing population and caseload during the county’s departmental budget hearings in August.
“I would argue that oftentimes, those apartment complexes that experience greater levels of crime are due to a failure of ownership to properly manage their properties,” Johnson said. “This may range from questionable tenants to poor grounds and building maintenance to allowing unrestricted and unchecked access to the complex. All of these are characteristics of the high-crime complexes I have patrolled.”
Johnson also pointed to active parenting and supervision as playing a “huge role in establishing a safe and secure community.”
“Ultimately, there are good, law-abiding folks living at all socioeconomic levels, and the opposite is also true – criminals and criminal activity occurs at all levels,” he added.
The people facing housing insecurity may be families, single mothers or just single individuals in general. They may have to deal with roommates, living in a car, tent or hotel/motel, like Ray and Shaw, or they could have to couch surf, Palmer said.
Even with utility and heating assistance programs and food banks from The Place and other area agencies, people have still faced housing insecurity, Palmer said.
“We’ve got people who graduated from college and went to Dawson County schools, and they can’t afford to live in Dawson.”Sharon Fox
And food and utility costs hit populations like senior citizens harder because many of them live on fixed incomes at or under $1,000 a month, contingent on social security or disability checks, said Fox.
“Seniors don't care about swimming pools, fitness centers…they just need something that's going to be where they can afford to live,” Fox said.
“We’ve got to get more senior housing in this community…true low-income housing for seniors,” she added. “It’s finding the people (developers) that want to do something, whether it’s government funded or not.”
“We are going to see an exit of seniors from the community that are low income because they can’t afford it,” Fox added. “They’ll move across state lines to where kids live, with some having to leave the area they knew or after moving here to be closer to family.”
Palmer recently also helped a man in his 60s facing housing insecurity by providing a food and clothing voucher while working to find him housing and a job.
“With that [elderly] population, that just breaks my heart,” Palmer said.
“That [housing] cost is pushing seniors out of their own housing, and many of them were renting at reduced amounts,” Whalen said. “Landlords can find people who will fill that and pay the price.”
What’s even more concerning is that Whalen has heard about a number of elderly clients and their adult children living together in cars, and while it’s not a huge increase, it’s “enough to make me concerned,” she said.
Jessi Emmett, the director for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit’s Treatment Services and Accountability Court, spoke about the unique housing challenges people who go through those programs face.
People in Dawson’s treatment court are required to live inthe county and either hold down a full-time job or attend school. Drug screens and groups that meet multiple times a week are also required, with the goals of helping participants “get their lives back on track to being regular, productive citizens,” Emmett said.
The accountability programs target individuals involved in the criminal justice system because of substance abuse or mental health conditions, “not because they’re violent criminals,” she added.
Rental applications often ask applicants about whether they have criminal histories.
“That may not give people the chance to explain or say, “Yes, I was charged with this, but here’s all the things I'm doing and the voluntary programs I've put myself under,’” Emmett said. “The fact that someone's made some poor choices and exposed themselves to such intensive services….it'd be wonderful if they had that voice and chance to explain that.”
Just like with other demographics, “inflation hit everybody, and our participants were no exception,” she added.
The Georgia Council of Accountability Court Judges and Department of Community Affairs do help with various housing grants and assistance.
“So we might have money to get people into an apartment, but if there are no apartments to go into, or the landlord does not want to rent to someone with a felony on their record, the money won’t do any good,” Emmett said.
Her office is “always looking to partner” with landlords who want to work with people, she added.
The housing crunch can put people in Treatment Services programs at risk for recidivism, when the office’s main goal is to reduce that.
“People can try to separate themselves from those they’re scared of, but at the end of the day, we all live in Dawson and surrounding communities, and we’re neighbors. When we reach out, support and take care of each other, the whole community benefits from that.”Jessi Emmett, Treatment Services Director
“Addiction doesn't discriminate based on how much money, the neighborhood or where you come from,” Emmett said. “We’ve seen that with opiates, and it’s the same thing with mental health [conditions.]”
“It’s not bad people…just bad decisions,” she added. “We want to reduce the stigma, hold people accountable and make sure they are law abiding and contributing to our communities.”
Just like others, though, Emmett recognized the notable increase in rent prices, calling many average rents now “more than a mortgage.”
She elaborated that for those not actively looking to rent, the current prices can be surprising.
“There are people who say, folks should just find somewhere to live,’” Emmett said. “It’s not that easy as finding somewhere to live, whether you have kids or are a senior.”
Fox added that considering other costs for prospective renters, it can even be more nuanced for them to afford leasing an apartment than first and last month’s rent and a security deposit.
“In their minds, that's how easy it is because they’re not dealing with it,” Fox said. “We’ve got people who graduated from college and went to Dawson County schools, and they can’t afford to live in Dawson. That’s ridiculous.”
Fox said the area rental market is “becoming unattainable” and that compassion is key when looking at people facing housing insecurity.
“People can try to separate themselves from those they’re scared of, but at the end of the day, we all live in Dawson and surrounding communities, and we’re neighbors,” Emmett added. “When we reach out, support and take care of each other, the whole community benefits from that.”