Commissioners hear criticism over lack of action on affordable housing

More than a dozen Athens residents lined up to harshly criticize the mayor and commission at their meeting last Tuesday, with many blaming the local government for an inadequate response to the ongoing affordable housing crisis. 

Some of these residents recently became homeless due to rising rents. Barbara Daniel, who had lived in the Lexington Heights neighborhood for over 20 years until her recent displacement, attended the meeting to encourage the commission to do more to help. “I don’t want to hear ‘ain’t nothing we can do,’” she said. “There’s always something we can do. Please, I’m begging you, get some affordable houses.”

Although affordable housing has been a priority for the commission for years, the housing situation in Athens has continued to deteriorate. Public commenters asked the commission for more forceful action including establishing an emergency fund for those facing eviction, passing a rent control ordinance, forcing landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers and a temporary moratorium on all evictions.

Unapologetically, the speakers acknowledged these bold measures would violate state law.

“I know it’s not allowed by the state government, let’s try it anyway,” said one commenter.

“People are being kicked out of their homes because we are afraid to take risks,” chided another speaker. “I beg you to do something.”

State law directly forbids rent control and would prevent the measures requested during public comment from being enforced, even if passed by the commission. Therefore, the state government would have to act first before the local government could follow through on these ideas to address the housing crisis.

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Even so, the commission has taken at least some action to help the current situation. Last month, they allocated about $800,000 to the non-profits the Ark, Advantage Behavioral, Family Promise, Project Safe and the Acceptance Recovery Center to help them deal with the immediate and long-term housing crisis in Athens.

CORRECTION 10/13: This article originally stated that Casa de Amistad, Habitat for Humanity and the Athens Land Trust received money in the most recent allocation of Community Development Block Grant funding. That was not true. These organizations received money in the previous allocation, but not last month. The correct organizations are now listed above.

Additionally, there were several items related to housing on the ACC Commission’s agenda at this month’s voting session as well. For example, the commission voted to accept a report on “missing middle” housing prepared by Opticos Design, Inc. which recommends that Athens return to pre-World War II housing policy in some areas of town. “Missing middle” refers to small multi-family homes like duplexes, four-plexes and townhouses that used to be common but were made illegal after the war as single-family zoning began to predominate city landscapes.

Since these types of homes are cheaper to build, allowing them might be a relatively easy way to increase Athens’ housing stock in walkable areas close to businesses and other amenities. There was broad commission support for the plan, which was accepted unanimously.

Commissioner Melissa Link

“This is a way to get a little more density without anyone recognizing it,” said Commissioner Melissa Link. “Walk down a street like Grady Avenue, where you have single-family homes, you have duplexes, you have a small apartment complex and you have four-plexes. This is the way that our country was built. We want to return to a pattern where people of all incomes can live in similar neighborhoods, and live together.” 

Commissioner Ovita Thornton was less favorable to the plan than Link. Although she also voted for it, Thornton argued that the commission shouldn’t need a plan before taking action to address defects in Athens’ zoning code. “If you needed this report to say that we needed to look at our zoning, fine,” Thornton said dismissively. “The problems that we’re having have been racist zoning and gentrification, and now we’re trying to fix it all and put it in a pretty package and call it the “missing middle.”

It’s true that by itself, the report doesn’t do anything to address Athens’ shortage of affordable housing. Implementing the “missing middle” plan’s recommendations will require a significant amount of work from the ACC Planning and Zoning Department in coming years. Unfortunately, this department is currently short-staffed – they’ve got six open positions they’re having trouble filling. On top of that, they’re in the middle of updating the county’s comprehensive plan, a large amount of work by itself, and they’re also revisiting both the growth concept map and future land use map.

Commissioner Tim Denson
Commissioner Tim Denson

At Tuesday’s meeting, the department requested that the commission delay implementing the “missing middle” housing recommendations until these other projects are complete, which wouldn’t be until 2024. Their request didn’t sit well with Commissioner Tim Denson, who is currently working on an ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units (aka “in-law” suites) as part of the commission’s inclusionary housing working group.

“I’m not sure why we’re working every week on accessory dwelling units if [they won’t be allowed until 2024],” Denson told his colleagues.

Commissioner Jesse Houle motioned to delay approval of the planning department’s work plan until next month, hoping that it could be modified so that accessory dwelling units and perhaps other “missing middle” recommendations would be completed more quickly. The rest of the commission agreed, so they will revisit the work plan next month.

The commission also approved a housing development at 4555 Lexington Road in 6-3 vote. Commissioner Patrick Davenport worked with the developer and nearby residents to craft a compromise proposal that allows a maximum of 87 single-family houses on the lot and prohibits attached units, something which may help to alleviate traffic concerns.

Thornton and Commissioners Mike Hamby and Allison Wright cast the three votes against Davenport’s proposal.

Finally, the commission unanimously agreed to purchase 91 acres of land at 200 and 280 Olympic Way for a price of $2.85 million. ACC staff have been planning to relocate an aging water and sewer facility and a transit maintenance facility on Pound Street, and they’ve decided that the Olympic Way property could fit both of those needs. As an added bonus, the public property on Pound Street could then be sold to developers to build new (hopefully affordable) housing.

“This could free up the Pound Street property for some very positive activity there and eliminate buses going through a neighborhood,” said Mayor Kelly Girtz, seeming excited about the property acquisition. “I think this is a good move all around.”

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