When Jessica Mitcham started working at Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter almost eight years ago, the reason why so many people in the local community were displaced seemed obvious.
"That was when the job market was terrible, so in the beginning it seemed like the majority of the work was helping people just find jobs," the shelter's executive director recalled. "We fought really hard to get guests to a position where they saved enough money that they could afford a 12-month lease — that means, of course, they've got to have funds for the deposit on the front end, utilities deposits, things like that."
But over the last year and a half, Mitcham said she's noticed a troubling trend emerge. Although her guests have saved up plenty of money to afford a 12-month lease, they are simply unable to locate any housing.
"There is an extreme scarcity, and it seems heartbreaking that a guest could come here who is homeless and unemployed, get a job, save money for weeks and not be able to find anywhere to take their hard-earned money and live," she said.
That's an issue Bartow Collaborative Inc. Executive Director Doug Belisle has also observed in his work with local families.
"They struggle to find something that fits inside that range of between $700-$900 a month," he said. "And unfortunately, there's a shortage of that kind of housing in our community, and in communities everywhere."
As a result, he's seeing many families struggling to find affordable housing end up at extended-stay hotels — "which, generally, are not the safest places for a family to stay."
That's something the Zywics family knows firsthand. About a month ago, they were living in a large home near Dellinger Park. Now, they're having to double up with friends and spend weeks at a time in motels.
Joseph Zywics, 34, said he's looked at probably 15-20 properties in the last two to three weeks. "They want $1,800 for a deposit, they want $1,500 for rent," he said. "I have no problem with the background check, but I can't afford that. You need about $3,000 to move into a home, and just right now, I don't have that."
His spouse, 33-year-old Somer Zywics, said they aren't having any better luck finding an apartment.
"Everything is at $1,400 a month for, what, three bedrooms?" she said. "Even small apartments, you're going to spend at least $800, $900, even $1,000. I've looked as far out as Ringgold and even there to get a three-bedroom home you're spending at least $1,200-$1,400, right around there."
They said they are deeply concerned about the well-being of their two children — 8-year-old Emma and almost 2-year-old Joseph IV.
"When the police showed up for the eviction, we tried to play it off like 'Oh no, they're just here to make sure the locks are OK,' and it's tough," Joseph said. "When we were staying at the hotel, we told her we were on vacation. She's not an idiot, she knows something's up. And how do you tell her we're kind of failing right now?"
While other parents in Bartow are worried about what their children will wear to school or how they'll fare in their next game or recital, Joseph said he's terrified Division of Family and Children Services will take his son and daughter away from them.
And Somer said she's equally distraught over the long-term emotional damage this bout of homelessness may inflict upon her children.
"I know they're resilient, and we do our best to make sure that they're loved and protected to the best of our abilities," she said. "But when you're 8 years old and you're going from home to different homes to a hotel ... I just pray that when she's older, it doesn't reflect in a negative manner."
The affordability conundrum
According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the standard definition of "affordable housing" is when the cost of housing expenses is tantamount to about 30 percent of an individual's total income.
With the average two-bedroom rental in Bartow County costing about $750 a month, that means renters in the community would have to bring in about $2,500 in monthly income to avoid being "housing cost burdened."
"Between $18 and $24 an hour is the bare minimum that someone can make and still afford to survive self-sufficiently, with just basic needs," Belisle said.
Even with higher wages, Bartow County Community Redevelopment Coordinator Patrick Nelson said many workers are nonetheless priced out of the local housing market.
"As for a formal definition of what constitutes 'affordable,' most realtors and lenders estimate that a person’s housing expense should not exceed 28 percent of their gross monthly income," he said. "That being said, we have a lot of individuals on a lower income scale or even a fixed income that may have 50 percent to 80 percent of their income needed for rent or a mortgage. This puts a great deal of strain on an individual or a family that still has to buy groceries, medications, utility bills and other necessities."
Mitcham said her organization aspires to find clients housing options in the $650-$800 a month range.
She said there are "safe enough options" along the Tennessee Street corridor within the $150-$175 a week range, but options elsewhere in the community leave much to be desired.
"Lots of weekly housing is tucked away in areas that have really high levels of drug use," she said. "We're trying to get our guests to move into environments where they don't feel like there's going to be so many triggers for them."
As for the cheapest monthly rentals, she said there are a few apartments in the $650-$675 range within the local community — yet virtually all of them are one bedroom.
Her shelter serves about 45-60 guests a month. But the number of people the organization is unable to serve is at least three times higher; each month, Mitcham said a lack of space forces the shelter to turn away between 40-60 single males, 40-60 single females and about 30-50 families.
The displaced includes a high volume of children. Working alongside both city and county school social workers and federal McKinney-Vento Act liaisons, Mitcham said district counts of students who have experienced homelessness in Bartow has averaged between 500-600 each year for the last three to five years.
Then there's the housing difficulties faced by those with criminal backgrounds.
Mitcham estimates that about two-thirds of her guests have at least one felony conviction on their records. While five years ago that may have hindered their employment opportunities, now she said very few clients find difficulties securing some kind of employment regardless of their rap sheets.
But finding housing is a different story. For those with more serious felonies, Mitcham said not only is it difficult for such guests to find housing, it's almost impossible.
Unable to secure long-term private market housing and automatically disqualified from public housing, she said many of them wind up having to rely on "temporary" lodging as a permanent living arrangement.
"So they're trapped in a hotel or motel," she said. "And it's taking their weekly paycheck every single week to barely afford the hotel or motel they live in."
In Bartow's current housing market, Nelson said demand for affordable properties remains "extremely high."
Local realtor Brad Cowart provided a few sales numbers from the last six months. His numbers chalk up 837 homes sold, of which 525 went for under $200,000. Among 361 homes actively for sale, however, just 107 are priced below the $200,000 threshold.
"While a number of houses have sold, the market is scarce," Nelson said. "Good homes that go on the market are selling quickly and prices continue to rise due to the demand."
And when it comes to apartments, Nelson said the county is largely devoid of the types of developments desirable — and attainable — for millennials.
"Many younger professionals are not looking to buy a house in their 20s," Nelson said. "They want to rent and live close to work and have access to shopping and recreation and we don’t currently have a lot of those type of options."
The public vs. private debate
Etowah Area Consolidated Housing Authority Executive Director Rhonda Bohannon has been with the organization, in some form or fashion, for the last quarter century.
As of midsummer, she said the Authority had 359 units throughout the county — 60 in Adairsville and the rest in Cartersville. That includes three designated areas for elderly clients along Garrison Drive, Railroad Street and Felton Road.
"We get calls every day," she said. "My longest waiting list is the one-bedrooms — the ones we turn down are for criminal history, usually, or a bad landlord reference."
The Authority's properties, however, are not classified as "Section 8" housing, but "conventional public housing," which means they do not accept subsidies via HUD's housing choice voucher program. In fact, she said the local housing authority doesn't accept housing vouchers of any kind.
"It's designated as public housing, not Section 8, so it's set up differently as far as funding goes and it's always been that way," she said. "It's not a choice. They were built in the 1950s and it's always been public housing, which means that your rent is based on your income."
The Authority operates under an annual contributions contract, with HUD providing the Authority operating subsidy and capital grant funds to rent units to individuals based upon 30 percent of their household income.
"So we have to base our flat rent on that, but they can be anywhere in that window," she said. "They count off for child care, the elderly and disabled get medical deductions, there's all kinds of things that they get off of the rent amount. I couldn't tell you an average."
She didn't specify how long the waiting list for Authority housing is, stating "we can't really give a timeframe because there's a lot of factors involved."
While on that waiting list, she said the Authority refers families to private market rentals at the Cartersville Gardens or the Crossfield Apartments.
"If they let us know where they are at, we'll contact them when an apartment is available," she said.
With the bulk of her clients claiming to be homeless, Bohannon said a lack of affordable housing in the community isn't making their lives any easier.
"I would hope that they would be building more, but I don't know what's out there," she said. "It's pretty necessary and pretty important, even though single mothers on one income with children, this is the best place for them. It allows them to maintain a household on little income, and some of them have very little income."
She said she's especially concerned about a lack of housing stock near the south end of Bartow, specifically around Lake Allatoona.
"They're living in dilapidated housing with very, very poor landlords and their housing situation is not decent, safe or sanitary," she said. "One of the issues is that people, they're raised a certain way and they don't know how to step outside of that box ... some of them don't know their situation can be changed."
Still, she said there are currently no plans for the Authority to apply for additional funding resources or block grants — nor any plans to immediately expand their number of units within the county.
Nelson said that moving forward, he believes the way in which public housing is developed and operated will change.
"Studies show that children, especially, that grow up in an area made up almost entirely of low-income housing, only have a 4 percent chance of getting out of that situation when they grow up," he said. "Mixed-income housing shows a much better success rate for low-income families to have better opportunities. There are incentives available for new developments to offer a percentage of units to varying income levels and these have proven to be very successful."
The dearth of public housing options — not just in Bartow but throughout the metro Atlanta area — concerns Belisle.
"That's been an area where there's either been a big waiting list — like I'm talking a years-long waiting list — or where it gets really complicated for families to be able to qualify," he said.
That's one of the reasons why Mitcham said her organization rarely makes referrals to public housing resources.
"All of our guests are encouraged to find private housing," she said. "We overwhelmingly are directing families towards looking to secure their own 12-month lease."
Although there are some permanent supportive housing units in Bartow, to be eligible for those services she said an individual must be both chronically homeless and disabled.
The shelter does, however, direct clients to two regional organizations that specialize in "rapid re-housing" interventions.
"The purpose of 'rapid re-housing' would be to help families get out of the shelter system as quickly as possible and to get them rapidly re-housed into their own apartment or home," she said. "A single adult or a family might need their whole 10 weeks here in order to save the kind of money they would need for deposits, but if they can be offered a subsidy through rapid re-housing then they might only be here three or four weeks."
One of those organizations, Action Ministries, serves all of northwest Georgia, while the other — MUST Ministries — primarily serves Cobb and Cherokee counties.
"Both of those organizations have rapid re-housing dollars that are awarded to their agencies for Bartow County, and so they both have caseworkers that come into Bartow to help implement those funds," she said. "Both of those programs, I would say, probably overwhelmingly take referrals from our organization, more than anywhere else."
Possible solutions on the horizon?
Mitcham acknowledges addressing Bartow's affordable housing problem isn't going to be easy.
"Those solutions don't happen overnight, and neither do additional apartment complexes appear overnight," she said. "Obviously, we want there to be more apartments and more low-cost houses for our guests who need them, but I do realize other partners are quick to argue our schools are slowly becoming at risk for overcrowding, so additional housing is certainly going to bring additional kids. Can our schools accommodate those children right now?"
It's obvious, Belisle said, that the demand for affordable housing in Bartow far outweighs the supply. An intrinsic problem, he said, is that builders have little financial incentive to build homes that will be sold for anything less than $100,000.
"Because building costs and profit margins are such that builders can't build a house for less than $200,000," he said, "by the time you have new housing that becomes available, it's in that $200,000-and-up price range, and for a family that we would say is struggling ... they still can't afford to live in a $200,000-and-above house or they can't qualify for a loan to get a house like that."
Still reeling from the Great Recession, Belisle said banks remain hesitant to lend to economically struggling families. That's understandable to a certain extent, he said, considering the consequences of the 2006 housing bubble burst. But that in turn creates an entirely different problem for Bartow's economy.
"In the long run, it's going to be difficult for the county," he said. "We're mostly driven by factories, we've got all sorts of industries moving in and we're trying to supply a workforce to those industries. But at the same time, if families can't live in the community where they work, it just kind of compounds a wide variety of difficulties and challenges for those families, especially families that are struggling to get back to their feet."
He did, however, pinpoint two potential remedies that — while not completely solving the county's affordable housing problem — could certainly do much to alleviate the situation.
One of those things is the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing (GICH) program. Each year, Belisle said several communities are accepted for the program, which seeks to improve the community's existing housing stock and create new, more affordable workforce housing developments.
"Part of the benefit of a program like that for Bartow is that it gives us access to award a low-income tax credit (LITC) point, so developers that come into an area look at these LITC opportunities and they will build either multifamily housing or they might build duplexes, things like that, using this tax credit and it allows them to build for much less than what they normally would," he said. "And then another requirement of that LITC is they have to supply some subsidies to individuals so that they meet an income requirement and they get a discount on their rent."
Nelson said GICH is already bearing fruit for the community. Last year, Prestwick Communities applied for credits through the state's Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to begin work on a 70-unit complex for residents 55-and-over on Douthit Ferry Road.
Belisle said he's optimistic the LITC is enough to motivate other developers to bring mixed-income housing units to Bartow.
"For instance, I might be able to have a third of the complex be market rate, and then I would have another third of the complex that would be income-based, and if we had cooperation with the housing authority, we might even have some housing authority vouchers available," he said.
Another provision for the tax credit, he said, makes developers responsible for managing the properties for at least 18 years — a measure Belisle considers a safeguard from the units deteriorating into slums.
"This is really nice, workforce-level housing — it would be in Bartow County, pretty much the equivalent to the apartments over at Avonlea, but with workforce families being able to move in at a $500 rental rate instead of a market rate of $1,100 or $1,200."
A more immediate fix, Belisle suggests, would be rental assistance programs for families that have fallen behind on payments.
"We've got several services in the county where we can help if a family is homeless, or if they found themselves on the street or living in their vehicle or something like that. We've got some options for those families, but we really don't have a huge option for families that get behind on the rent and just need a month's worth of assistance until they can catch up on their bills," he said.
"I think if we had a pool of resources dedicated to rental assistance that we could manage or one of our nonprofit agencies in the county, we could make a short-term impact in a lot of what we're seeing. Because it's easier to keep a family where they are than for them to have to go through the crisis of either losing everything in an eviction or trying to figure out how they're going to move and then finding that affordable housing they know is not easily available."
Nelson said the county is also looking at obtaining a Community HOME Investment Program (CHIP) grant through the DCA, which would allow Bartow to create a revolving loan fund to construct affordable properties. And to address blight, the Bartow-Cartersville Land Bank was formed in 2017 — a program Nelson said allows the local government to acquire dilapidated and tax delinquent properties and "help clear the table for them to become marketable again."
Right at the Bartow/Cobb County line there's a motel off the Glade Road I-75 exit that is almost hidden among the kudzu-choked trees. It's situated off a narrow roadway, pockmarked with blanched fast food signs. Its parking lot is cratered with potholes and beside it is a large, brick shopping center — one that's completely abandoned and walled off by a gnarled, chain-link fence.
But for Joseph Zywics, living there still isn't the worst case scenario he can imagine for his family.
"I would much rather be in the car than have them in a homeless shelter," he said. "I just don't want to end up in those woods."
His 8-year-old daughter carries herself with a stern disposition well beyond her years. Even when she smiles, one can detect in her eyes a somber sense of discernment — as a child, she seems to have learned more hard truths about the world than most adults ever will.
"The most difficult part is grasping the reality of what's happening now. It's mentally draining on me," Joseph said. "It can't be like this forever. How am I going to provide for my kids today? I'm limited in what I can do."
Despite having only one leg, Joseph said he was declared ineligible for Social Security disability benefits. Unable to procure work, the economic burden for the whole family falls on his spouse, Somer, who said she finds herself working six and sometimes seven days a week as a hairdresser to keep everyone financially afloat.
Which puts the family in a tragically ironic situation — she said that income likely prohibits them from taking advantage of many benefits, such as housing vouchers or even basic public assistance subsidies.
"I know they have the help for poverty. Maybe they need to make a safety net for your lower middle class?" she said. "When it comes to affordable housing, realistically, everybody's trying to rent a home to people who bring in $200,000-plus, at least, a year. People who make $45,000 a year … there's really no way to really get ahead or save for college or save if you want to put your children into sports."
That's a way of life, she said, that is often overlooked by local officials and decision-makers.
"People who support their families off jobs from Ingles, I don't know how they can afford a home or an apartment, a shelter," she said. "And I'm sure they break their back trying to pay a bill, but so many other things get pushed to the side when you're in a different class ... you struggle just to have your basic amenities of life."
The daily struggle continues for the Zywics — and the thousands of other people in Bartow County going through the very same kind of housing crisis.
Another day, another disappointment. Another "good deal" that turns out to be the work of a scammer — somebody offering the keys to a lovely home for $750 a month, but only after the money is electronically wired to them. Another $900 rental that seems like the answer to their prayers — that is, until the $1,800 security deposit dashes their dreams. Another call about public housing benefits going straight to an automated message, knowing full well the waiting list is only going to get longer and never shorter.
Right now, Joseph said the crisis is one that is mostly impacting the "lower middle class." But if the affordable housing problem continues unabated, he said everyone in Bartow is going to feel the pain — perhaps much sooner rather than later.
"Even if you make $250,000 a year, it's going to affect you because with the homeless rate going up, taxes are going to go up," he said. "You have people that will do anything to make that extra money and then what happens? People rob those $250,000 homes ... everybody's going to feel it, one way or another."