When the Atlanta City Council passed legislation in June to fund a Housing Help Center, lawmakers billed it as a one-stop shop for intown residents’ housing needs—but the ordinance shed little light on the $600,000 pilot program.
Almost two months later, however, the city is preparing to open the help center; it’s set aside office space at City Hall and hired a director, Donnell Q. Woodson, from Woodson Consulting Partners, which helps clients cultivate community spaces. Now it’s training staff and coordinating a network of local nonprofits that provide housing resources.
Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Joshua Humphries, the mayor’s top housing advisor, about the Housing Help Center on Wednesday to find out how it works, who it’s for, and when it will be open to serve the city’s lower-income renters and homeowners.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Atlanta Civic Circle: What will the Housing Help Center look like? We’ve heard about a hotline, an online portal, and a physical office at City Hall, right?
Joshua Humphries: Right. We’ve got four full-time positions allocated for it and already have three staff in place, including Donnell Woodson as the director.
They are going to physically work out of the Office of Constituent Services [on City Hall’s ground floor], so people can just walk into the building if they need help with anything housing-related.
But we’ll have a digital presence as well, meaning a website and phone lines, so no matter by what means you’re trying to reach out, you’ll be able to access us.
When will the Housing Help Center be open for business?
The goal is to launch the Housing Help Center publicly by October. We just got the new staff onboarded, and we are doing really intensive meetings with all of the public and private partners that provide housing resources.
We think it’s really important that this team knows that, say, [local nonprofit] Rebuilding Together repairs roofs—or that other organizations can solve other issues—but also that we have a team that knows who to call at Rebuilding Together, if that program’s open, who’s eligible, etc.
Oftentimes when you call an organization, it can be hard to figure out who the right person is to talk to, so we can be a resource that connects people with existing programs that fit their needs and provide a little more hand-holding in the process than currently exists.
Okay, so this new center won’t just be helping people find available affordable housing—it will assist with any housing problems, like landlord-tenant disputes, home repairs, the whole nine?
Yes. A lot of that work is going on right now, but the other thing that we’re doing is identifying substantial gaps in existing resources that we think we could fill in the interim—finding what programs we can stand up.
So that’s the piece that we’re working on over the next 60 days or so, and then getting the website and those types of pieces in place.
The Housing Help Center is really for everything across the housing ecosystem. Finding housing, sure, but also there’s a whole bunch of housing-related needs that people have.
So this is an effort to bundle together all of the city’s housing services and partnerships, like the public defender office’s eviction-prevention initiative and the new Safe and Secure Housing initiative to step up code enforcement against negligent landlords?
It’ll help make the right connections. The eviction-prevention program is run by the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and the Housing Help Center might say, ‘We know geographically where that program is in effect, and it sounds like you’re in that area. You need to talk to so-and-so over at AVLF, and we’ll connect you to them now.’
That’s one of the challenges we have now: We have great programs available, but not an easy conduit to connect people to them.
So the Housing Help Center will link people to supportive services, but it also will actually connect people in need to housing, right? How? What happens if someone comes in off the street and says, ‘I have no idea where to start looking. Can you help me?’
That’s right. We’re likely going to hire an organization to help with the housing sourcing. One example would be Open Doors Atlanta, whom we worked with on the Forest Cove relocation. They scour the housing ecosystem and find housing that meets people’s needs.
How much capacity will the Housing Help Center have to place people in stable housing? The city is working on a lot of affordable housing developments, but the center and these partner organizations must deal with the tight housing supply we have.
Right now, there are a lot of resources available and organizations that help with that, which people don’t know about. That’s one big piece of this. On the housing front, having an organizational partnership to actually source units is a really big advantage, because finding a unit—a rent-restricted unit—when you’re only making a certain income, just navigating Atlanta’s housing market is a very difficult thing to do.
Particularly with the supply strain that we have, organizations like Open Doors are a key resource. And then over time, we’re adding new affordable housing units. We have a lot in the pipeline right now and even more under construction.
But for the foreseeable future, we’re still going to need support in connecting residents with the type of housing that meets their needs.
Has the Housing Help Center officially partnered with Open Doors, or are they the type or organization you plan to engage?
It’s someone we could partner with.
But by October you’ll have pretty well mapped out this network of organizations?
Yes. We think it’s important to have that locked in before we launch the help center, so that we’re actually able to help residents when they call.
What if someone walked into City Hall today looking for housing help?
Well, there’s the three staff members on board now in the Office of Constituent Services, so when people come in with pressing housing needs, our team is working with them on a case-by-case basis.
But not all the resources that we have to have are in place yet. There are people at City Hall who do a bunch of stuff related to housing, but not a team ready quite yet that can say, ‘Hey, residents of the city, come here and we’ll do everything we can to address whatever challenge you’re dealing with.’