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The elephant in the county: Lack of housing

One of the finer points that surfaced during the countywide comprehensive planning meetings is the lack of development here may be tied to the lack of affordable housing in the area which makes it hard to attract new employees and thus new companies. If there is no one to fill entry level positions, what company can move here?

In November 2017, Pickens County had an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, the same rate as shown in October. This is down from 4.5 percent a year before. Pickens was estimated by the state labor department to have a labor force of 14,864 people with only 580 people officially unemployed.

[As a sidenote, unemployment figures must be taken with a grain of salt. They are projections based on people who collect unemployment. People who work in the construction/landscaping/ some self employed industry may not be making the list at all. And people who have collected the 14-20 weeks of unemployment benefits get booted off the rolls. That being said it’s the best figure we have.]

At first glance, our unemployment rate might be touted as a strong positive for the community – we must be doing something right as our jobless rate is the lowest around. But potential companies may focus on the small pool of 580 seeking work and move to another location with more employees to draw from. 

Official figures aside, we hear from area employers that finding enough warm bodies to fill a shift is difficult. 

The federal government considers 5 percent to 5.2 percent to be “full employment.” Pickens now sits more than a percent below the full employment rate.

In simple terms, there are people here with jobs they really don’t want or have the skills for, who are working because employers couldn’t find anyone else to show up.

It doesn’t take an economist to predict what would happen if our county had landed a big prospect in the past year. What if a company employing 100 showed up today?

As most of us here know, Pickens is a great place to live – if you can actually find somewhere to live. The comprehensive planning meetings made plain that there is no entry level housing and few choices at any price range. 

You hear stories of people who found jobs here but ended up living in adjacent counties as they couldn’t find anything here. 

At the final comprehensive planning meeting a couple of stakeholders discussed our particular brand of homelessness with people crowding in unsafe and unsanitary numbers into homes as there are no affordable alternatives.

From anecdotal accounts (certainly not a comprehensive survey) it seems that rent here starts at $600-$800 for small places and pretty regularly run $1,100 to $1,500, not including utilities. As a comparison, RentCafe.com, using national information, calculates that Atlanta has an overall average rent of $1,300 per month. It would seem that people here are bringing home rural Georgia wages, but paying metro-area rents. Very small supply and constant demand means high prices – nothing shocking here.

As the comprehensive planning meeting further showed, the idea of adding more housing supply, particularly affordable or multi-family complexes, is a thorny subject. Several speakers urged the county/cities to look at ways to foster walkable areas for residential development near the downtown of Jasper.

Others, however, countered that large residential developments rarely pay off in terms of additional taxes covering the additional costs to a county.

We are not sold on the idea, nor advocating that Pickens needs a lot more affordable housing; a nice bedroom community is not a bad plan for the future. Nor do we support government getting involved in any private industry, especially when there are limits on both sewage capacity and water supply that need to be taken into account.

We are pointing out that when growth is discussed, lack of housing should be identified as an underlying condition that plays a role in industrial and commercial development.