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George on Georgia – The Inflection Point

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George on Georgia – The Inflection Point

George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse

Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.

About 15 years ago, I bought a house in Pine Lake. I paid a bit less than $190,000 in 2007. A year later, the county assessor said it was worth less than $40,000.

The world conspired to keep me in Georgia.

I’ll be grateful forever that I love my house and my neighbors because at that moment I bore an unsellable burden. After a vagabond journalist’s life, it meant I was staying put for a while.

Now, we all know that assessments tend to run a hair below the real selling price, but I didn’t get back to the value I bought until 2017. Real estate is why white people have eleven times more wealth than Black people. In that light, the crash of 2008 felt like a cruel trick. A decade of wealth building, gone.

Granted, I think it’s worked out for me.

But DeKalb is still feeling its aftereffects 15 years later. Home builders quit trying for about five years, even though hundreds of thousands of people moved in to the metro area. Real estate speculators swept through south DeKalb buying up houses for less than the price of a decent car, converting tidy subdivisions into vast rental tracts. Black homeownership rates today are lower than in 2010.

I refinanced my house a month or so ago, locking in a rate in mid-February. I was a little irritated. I thought I’d completely missed the boat, again. Rates had been three-quarters of a point lower a month earlier. My mortgage broker, Chuck Feagain at Flagstar, is a well-known political operator in Savannah and an old friend. We joked about it.

“The world trades on the future,” he said.

We are staring at another inflection point today. Folks who are reasonably well-off will probably survive it. But it’s going to be life-defining for the people who aren’t, and I have to wonder if the dispossessed will simply take it again this time.

Some people have been warning about a housing crisis for years.

Interest rates have doubled since February. It is not inconceivable that they could double again before this is over.

The average home sale last month in Atlanta was around $400,000. A 30-year mortgage in February would have cost about $2,000 a month to buy that house. About $600 a month of that payment would have been interest. At the rates today, that house would cost $600 a month more at the same sales price, because interest doubled.

Normally. I wouldn’t expect that house to maintain the same sales price. One would expect the value of the house to fall until a mortgage of $2,000 could buy it. At current rates, the house that sold for $400,000 in February would have to fall about 20 percent to get to the same $2,000 mortgage payment, all else being equal.

But nothing about the Atlanta market is normal.

Set aside how little housing inventory we have and how desperate people are for housing. Hedge fund investors have been piling in for the last year, buying as much as 40 percent of the available single-family residential housing stock on the market each quarter.

Georgia also has uniquely favorable state laws protecting corporate housing investors. It’s much easier to evict a renter in Georgia than other states. Municipal governments are barred by law from even keeping a list of rental properties.

To all of this, add a massive food crisis that should crest near the end of the year. Ukraine’s summer wheat – 20 percent of the world’s supply – is likely to rot on the docks of Odessa if it is even harvested. India has banned food exports. Growing conditions have become unfavorable in America because of drought in some places and flooding in others. And there’s a worldwide shortage fertilizer and of a diesel fuel additive necessary to run modern farm equipment.

The result may be a 50 percent increase in food prices, above the elevated rates we see today.

As interest rates rise, the economy will begin to contract. Rising food prices and a housing crisis will collide with layoffs as companies begin to falter.

Something has to give.

The thing I would like to see give … is our benighted housing policies in Georgia.

Property owners also shouldn’t be allowed to shield their identities behind some shell company incorporated in Delaware or the Bahamas. Changes to the tax code should require corporate owners to pay into a pool to offset the cost of building affordable housing.

We should also be more open to new residential construction without NIMBY attacks. And we need to start now, while there’s time. Otherwise, corporate investors will turn the people of Atlanta into landless serfs.

– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.

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