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For 25 years I’ve worked directly in multifamily affordable housing in Metro Atlanta, primarily as a landlord and owner of a property management company. Over the years, I’ve had daily interactions with thousands of tenants, giving me a front-row seat to some of the many systemic challenges that face hardworking renter-families.
I am very aware that housing communities can be designed to perpetuate inter-generational poverty. For example, low-income families are vulnerable to rental increases and thus move at a much higher rate than the population at large in pursuit of affordability. Constant moves mean their children change schools frequently, creating an insurmountable education lag.
It is well documented by educators: Every time a student changes schools, they lose three months of learning. Renter-families that move two or three times a year are now a common theme, creating academic struggles for their children.
The interconnection between housing and education encouraged me to co-found Star-C, a nonprofit with the mission to improve education through housing – primarily through services like free, on-site, after-school programs. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Star-C had to suspend after-school programs and summer camps, so we pivoted, focusing on in-home learning, the digital divide, hunger relief and rental assistance.
We have watched as the pandemic created a new “juggle-paradigm” for low-income families. In addition to juggling multiple jobs (if the family is fortunate to have jobs), the pandemic brought homeschooling, COVID-induced medical issues, elderly relatives moving into their care and more.
The reality of the juggle-paradigm is why I am encouraged when I see something working well for families. I was pleased to see Georgia was one the states proactively removing hurdles for eligible voters to get to the polls and make their voices heard.
Many of our proud families may be poor with limited resources, but they are also Americans and interested in civic participation. For this frighteningly large proportion of our population, alternatives like no-excuses absentee voting, expanded early voting, all-hours ballot drop-boxes and other options to help ensure their voices are heard at the ballot box are must-haves.
Working with these families during the pandemic has given me a strong appreciation for my life. A very strong appreciation. I’m fortunate enough to control my own schedule, usually voting in a traditional way. I’m blessed to have the time and resources that make such choice and access possible. Still, I regularly work with conscientious individuals and families who are living in the civic-divide, lacking the transportation, time or other resources to participate as voters or in other civic duties.
I am proud of how my home state of Georgia handled voting against the backdrop of the pandemic. Record numbers of Georgians voted; many who had never voted before. And, because of these alternatives, my families did not have to choose between their health, family or employer demands, and their right to vote. That’s a very American thing, as we have collectively and historically fought to ensure more eligible Americans have the right to vote.
Some of our state legislators and other leaders want to take us backward, effectively silencing (especially at-risk) Georgians, making it harder to vote and creating barriers to register. Even some of the photo ID requirements become onerous on citizens who may not have ready access to make copies or who don’t have a required form of ID to register to vote. Many of our families do not own cars and don’t have a driver’s license. At our newest apartment property in Atlanta, one-third of our renters don’t own cars.
Certainly, there are election, registration and voting issues that can be fine-tuned, but let’s prioritize democracy, integrity and a cornerstone of our freedom – voting. Polls are telling us that Georgians of both major political parties are happy with expanded voting methods. No matter our race, background, zip code or the fact that we may live in affordable housing, most of us believe that for democracy to work for all of us, it must include us all.
Marjy Stagmeier is a Partner in TriStar Real Estate Investment, a commercial real estate investment company. She is also co-founder of Star-C, a non-profit providing services to affordable housing communities; Star-C pivoted during the pandemic, focusing primarily on its Eviction Relief Program.