The ACC Commission has come together in a nearly unanimous compromise to approve an affordable housing investment strategy and a plan to reduce and prevent homelessness. This came after two hours of public comment tilting strongly in favor of the plans.
The commission also decided on a transition for residents at the First Step homeless encampment, approved the schematic design of a $6.6 million mental health recovery facility and rejected a proposal for a mandatory pet registration program.
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Housing and Homelessness Plans
The ACC Commission voted unanimously last Tuesday to approve a plan to reduce and prevent homelessness and voted 9-1 to approve a strategy that will guide the local government’s investment in affordable housing going forward.
The housing vote did not come with any funding attached to it beyond the $1.7 million that the federal government already provides Athens for housing annually. The plan to reduce homelessness, on the other hand, is fully funded for the next two years with $4.8 million coming from the American Rescue Plan. With their vote on Tuesday, the commission decided to send $1 million of that to the Athens Homeless Coalition as soon as possible and to offer another $3.8 million for homeless services in a competitive ‘request-for-proposals’ process over the next year or so.
The first $1 million will allow the Athens Homeless Coalition to hire full-time staff for the first time in its history, improve their data collection and establish a support fund to help with one-time costs that might otherwise be a barrier for people seeking housing (e.g. utility deposits, rental application fees).
Before the American Rescue Plan funding runs out, the Athens Homeless Coalition will need to improve its fundraising capacity to continue providing these enhanced services. But the big-picture reality is that the plan to reduce homelessness cannot succeed by its own merits alone. Its fate is closely connected to the other plan the commission just voted to approve – the affordable housing investment strategy – which is mostly unfunded right now.
Whether the commission chooses to make the investments that are necessary for these plans to succeed remains to be seen.
The community speaks out
If the commission does make the investment, they’ll be strongly supported by most Athens residents if public comment at this meeting is any indication. APN tallied the public comments from last Tuesday and found 24 to be in favor of the plans with only six opposed. Another seven speakers gave comments that were ambiguous or ambivalent (sometimes passionately so) and were difficult to categorize.
Arguments speakers used in favor of the plans ranged from idealistic (“Housing is a human right”) to moralistic (“It’s our civic and moral duty to take care of people”) to practical (“It’s more affordable to be compassionate”), but some of the most powerful comments came from people who have lived experience being homeless themselves.
“I went from experiencing homelessness to being housed eight years ago,” said one speaker. “There was a program available to pay rent for me to go to a recovery house. It saved my life. I now work for the accountability courts in Clarke County. I pay my taxes. I’m sure you would much rather me be doing this, because I was supported through a housing plan, rather than pitching a tent in your backyard and shooting dope.”
Commissioners weigh in
Arguments against the plans were generally muted, with speakers in opposition seeming resigned to their inevitable passage. Nevertheless, the outcome has been in doubt until very recently. Some commissioners were quite critical of the plans in previous meetings but turned around and joined the majority in the end, making for unanimous or near-unanimous votes.
Commissioner John Culpepper, who had previously voiced some skepticism, not only voted for the plan to reduce homelessness but even spoke in favor of it on Tuesday.
“We do not want to create a [homeless services] hub,” Culpepper told some conservative members of the audience, referring to the idea that homeless people would be encouraged to move here from across northeast Georgia. “We want to take care of the folks that are here and reduce and prevent homelessness. In the plan, it also has metrics so we can measure the success and failure … This is not ‘housing first,’ this is based off of Built for Zero. It’s similar to housing first, but it has wrap-around services. We’re going to put boots on the ground and start putting money behind it to take care of this problem.”
One of the reasons why Culpepper ended up supporting the plan was a commission-defined option, or amendment, created by Commissioners Carol Myers, Melissa Link, Ovita Thornton and Dexter Fisher. The amendment directs ACC Manager Blaine Williams to identify “opportunities for regional coordination” to reduce homelessness and to inform neighboring counties of Athens’ intent to enforce Senate Bill 62, a law sponsored by Athens’ State Representative Houston Gaines in this year’s legislative cycle.
SB 62 prohibits dropping people experiencing homelessness off in another county, unless service organizations in the county agree to accept them. The law may be difficult to enforce as written, but it is important to Culpepper and other commissioners that the county at least make an attempt.
The commission-defined option also asks the Athens Homeless Coalition to work with faith-based organizations, nonprofits and for-profits alike as they go about their work, including employers and financial institutions. Finally, it requests that the coalition report back on their progress to the mayor and commission every 180 days, which the commission feels will encourage accountability.
Regarding the affordable housing investment strategy, the commission overwhelmingly supported it as well, but not to the same degree as the plan to reduce homelessness. It passed 9-1, with Fisher as the lone ‘no’ vote. Once again, commissioners were able to come together around a commission-defined option created by Thornton, Fisher, Link and Myers.
The changes in the housing commission defined-option are fairly similar to those made to the homelessness plan. They direct the ACC Manager to engage for-profit organizations like major employers and financial institutions as well as nonprofits and churches as the local government seeks to implement the plan. They also emphasize the need for quick action and direct the manager to craft a plan for funding the recommendations within 180 days. They also direct him to release housing funds allocated last year, including for Habitat for Humanity, the Athens Land Trust and other organizations.
These changes were unanimously supported by the commission, but another change proved a bit less popular. Commissioner Jesse Houle wanted to be sure that “permanent supportive housing” would be considered for housing investment. This is housing that comes with wraparound services and is intended to help stabilize those who may have been recently homeless. Houle intended this change to be a way of linking the housing plan more directly to the strategy to reduce homelessness.
Most commissioners agreed to Houle’s proposal, but not Fisher.
“Affordable housing and homelessness are two separate issues,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to look at our ‘missing middle’ [housing] and then we’ve got to look at workforce housing…We don’t need to mix the two plans together.”
Fisher ended up voting against the entire affordable housing investment strategy because there was no opportunity to vote separately against Houle’s proposal.
First Step Transition Plan
As you may already be aware, the First Step homeless encampment is scheduled to close on December 31. What will happen to the current residents of the camp when that date arrives is currently an open question, but it seems clear that everyone will have to vacate the premises.
The commission has tentatively decided to house the current residents of the camp for the wintry months with hotel vouchers, which sounds like a reasonable idea on paper. Unfortunately, the plan may not be feasible as advertised. Therefore, APN is unable to report accurately on the plan at the moment without time to dig deeper.
Mental Health Recovery Facility
The commission also approved a schematic design for a mental health recovery facility for Advantage Behavioral Health at this meeting. Phase I of the design is for a 19,000 square foot building that will include 28 beds at an estimated cost of $6.6 million. The funding comes primarily from SPLOST 2020, with some from the American Rescue Plan and also the community energy fund.
The community energy fund, which is collected from franchise fees levied on utility companies, will provide $1.2 million to the project. This money will allow for solar paneling that will provide between 75% and 90% of the building’s electrical needs. The solar panels will be supported with battery storage that will double as the emergency backup for critical systems.
Phase I of the project is scheduled for completion in summer of 2025.
Finally, the commission rejected a proposal for mandatory pet registration in Athens in a 7-3 vote. The vote was framed negatively, so the seven ‘yes’ votes were from commissioners who wanted to reject pet registration. Houle, Link and Commissioner Tiffany Taylor were the three who voted ‘no,’ because they did not want to reject pet registration.
Lisa Milot of Athens Pets, an animal welfare organization, spoke in favor of the pet registration proposal during public comment.
“There is overwhelming evidence of the need for a pet registration program here,” Milot said. “Pet registration programs have been shown nationally to increase cat and dog spay/neuter rates, reduce people’s negative encounters with stray animals including serious dog bites and reduce uncontrolled breeding. They also decrease shelter impounds by an average of 12.3%, reducing the long-term expenditure of taxpayer funds and the euthanasia of friendly animals.”
Myers, who chairs the committee that considered pet registration, said there was a lack of compelling evidence presented to her in favor of the idea at the same time as she received an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the public. Therefore, she voted to reject pet registration but mentioned that she would be open to considering the idea again at some future date.