The city of Atlanta’s new Housing Help Center is officially open for business.
The pilot initiative’s goal is to ensure that anyone who seeks assistance will secure stable housing. But the help center’s new director, Donnell Woodson, faces a herculean task trying to connect Atlanta’s lowest-income renters to housing when the city is struggling with a massive affordable housing shortage.
The help center started accepting walk-in clients at a temporary office at Atlanta City Hall a few weeks ago, but Mayor Andre Dickens on Thursday officially unveiled its main office at downtown’s Two Peachtree tower. The city bought the former state of Georgia office building last February to retrofit it with up to 700 affordable housing units, as well as office space and retail.
Billed as a “one-stop shop” for low-income Atlantans’ housing needs, the help center works with over 200 government agencies and nonprofits, such as the city’s homeless services provider Partners For Home, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, and Atlanta Legal Aid. Together, they help people find affordable housing, navigate landlord-tenant disputes and eviction actions, access mortgage assistance programs, and even improve their credit scores.
Woodson told Atlanta Civic Circle at the Oct. 26 grand opening that the help center serves as a “good case study” for the city’s capacity to help people struggling with housing insecurity. So far, he said, it’s taken between four and six weeks to successfully move someone from living on the street to a decent apartment—but the goal is to reduce that timeline to just two weeks.
Woodson said he’s connected over two dozen Atlantans so far with city agencies and nonprofits for housing and supportive services.
Expanding the number of people helped will take more staff, including case managers, Woodson said. “Without proper case management, we’re just turning people over to processes where they fall into a vortex and abyss,” he said.
The array of government agencies and nonprofits offering housing services can be confusing to people seeking assistance, he explained. “We’re helping constituents understand how to navigate their processes to get people in affordable units.”
“We have way more need than we have the ability to fill,” Woodson acknowledged, adding that over 70,000 evictions were filed against metro Atlanta residents in the first half of 2023 alone.
“It’s a reality that we today don’t have the units. We don’t [even] have 15,000 units ready to take people with evictions on their record,” Woodson said. In the current tight housing market, landlords generally won’t rent to anyone who’s experienced an eviction, which means they often resort to motels or end up homeless.
Ideally, the pilot help center program, which is funded by $600,000 from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, will convince city and even state legislators to direct more funding toward housing initiatives, Woodson said.
Atlanta’s affordable housing production plan
The underlying issue, Woodson said, is that the city is in dire need of apartments and homes that are affordable for people earning 60% of the area median income (about $58,000 for a four-person household) or less—and especially for those making much less.
Dickens has pushed to build more housing since taking office in January 2021, when he committed to produce and preserve 20,000 affordable units by 2026. Even so, Atlanta is losing affordable units faster than it’s creating them, according to HouseATL.
The city has delivered around 3,000 affordable housing units over Dickens’ tenure so far, and there are roughly 5,000 more in the development pipeline, the mayor said during the help center’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Most of the projects in the works are located on the Westside, Dickens’ chief housing advisor, Joshua Humphries, told Atlanta Civic Circle.
What’s more, Dickens said, the city recently purchased $4 million worth of shipping containers from the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and is transforming them into “rapid housing units”—pint-sized apartments—for people experiencing homelessness. Forty should be available by Christmas, the mayor said, and he anticipates 500 will be deployed across the city by the end of 2025.
This is all a solid step forward, said Alison Johnson, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Housing Justice League.
“The city is making an effort to combat the shortage of housing it has,” she said. But the big issue is how affordable the units the city is producing are. Most of the units the city has had built are for market-rate projects that include a percentage of affordable units, in partnership with private developers. The units designated affordable are generally priced for households earning either 60% or 80% of the area median income.
Johnson said the true need is for “deeper affordable housing, not an increase in the amount of mixed-income units.”
The Housing Help Center will hopefully assist many Atlantans with the obstacles they face in the pursuit of safe and stable housing, Johnson said.
However, she added, it can’t do much to actually mitigate the city’s affordable housing crisis unless the state legislature adopts policies bolstering tenant protections—measures, for instance, that could make it so people with bad credit scores or evictions on their records aren’t doomed to be denied leases at decent rental complexes.
How to contact the Housing Help Center:
- Visit HousingHelpCenter.com
- Call 3-1-1
- Visit the Two Peachtree tower downtown or the Office of Constituent Services on the first floor of Atlanta City Hall.