An eviction prevention program modeled after Gwinnett County’s Project Reset is finally moving forward in Athens. Last week, the ACC Commission voted to consider Athenian First Development Corporation to run the program and instructed ACC staff to negotiate their contract and scope of work.
Project Reset is an emergency rental assistance program in Gwinnett County that helps people stay in their homes when threatened with eviction. Tenants at risk of eviction have their back rent and late fees forgiven in a negotiated settlement with the landlord. This ends the threat of eviction and allows them to stay in their homes as if they had just moved in. In exchange, landlords receive a percentage of the back rent the tenant owed, paid for using federal relief funding.
This program is run by Home First Gwinnett, who works with the magistrate court, approves applicants and negotiates with landlords on behalf of the county government.
Delayed start for Project Reset in Athens
In Athens, a similar eviction prevention program was suggested by Commissioner Tim Denson last winter. The Centers for Disease Control had issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions on Sept. 1, 2020 which was scheduled to expire. Denson thought that having a local eviction prevention program would be an important precaution against a potential wave of evictions that could be on the way after the protection granted by the CDC was lifted. The moratorium remained in full effect until July 31, 2021 and was finally struck down in its entirety by the Supreme Court on Aug. 26.
That meant evictions were set to resume, but Denson’s eviction prevention program was not yet ready. That’s because the program was delayed by procedural hurdles, an overworked ACC Department of Housing and Community Development and also commission bickering and dysfunction. Assuming a wave of evictions was on the way, commissioners instructed ACC staff to find a partner to run the program as soon as possible. They ended up putting out a request for proposals on Aug. 30 with only 15 days given for prospective partner agencies to complete the application.
Given the tight timeline of the request and complicated nature of the program, only one potential partner agency ended up applying: Athenian First Development Corporation.
Athenian First is a new organization, established in Oct. 2020, with no experience in providing social services to the public. They are a nonprofit housing developer founded with the intention of building affordable single-family homes for low or moderate-income Athenians. Theresa Omanovic, Chief Financial Officer of Athenian First, told APN that her organization also plans to become a housing counseling agency providing home buyers assistance in financial literacy.
Considering the lack of experienced applicants, ACC staff felt that their request was rushed and done imperfectly. As a result, they recommended that the commission reject Athenian First’s application and reissue a modified request with a 30-day window for receiving applications.
Commissioners push forward
At their meeting last week, commissioners disagreed with ACC staff in a 7-1 vote and tentatively approved Athenian First for the eviction prevention contract. Commissioner Allison Wright made an attempt to support staff’s recommendation to slow down and reissue the request for proposals, but her motion failed in a 2-6 vote with only Commissioner Mike Hamby joining her in voting yes.
Wright’s objections centered on the cost of going with Athenian First, who originally requested $3.85 million to run the program. She said wanted to cast a wider net to find a more competitive bid.
Denson, on the other hand, did not want to turn away the program’s only applicant. He argued there was no way to be sure a second request would be any more successful than the first. He also objected to the amount of time that reissuing the request would take, which could be months. Before the vote, he told his colleagues that “there are many families in this community who can’t wait that long.”
Commissioner Mariah Parker agreed and went further, expressing her confidence in Athenian First. “After having met with the applicant, I’m feeling really confident that with some support both from [ACC] staff and the folks at Home First Gwinnett, where the program has been very successful, that this too can be a good success.”
Fact check: Is a wave of evictions really on the way?
Denson and other commissioners based their support for Athenian First at least in part on their sense that a backlog of evictions was on the verge of being processed by local courts. For example, Denson told APN that “over 900” evictions were pending in Athens (a claim that APN repeated on Athens News Matters).
Commissioner Ovita Thornton, who tried to delay implementation of the eviction prevention program earlier in the year, also supported the award to Athenian First on these grounds. “The longer we keep dragging this out, people are going to be evicted. We need to not let people face the holidays and eviction at the same time,” she said.
However, Magistrate Court Judge Ben Makin told APN that the 900 number was likely exaggerated, saying that many old eviction cases had not yet been removed from their computer system. Makin said the total number of currently pending eviction cases would be impossible to calculate except “by hand review.”
Furthermore, Makin says Athens has seen “a very significant reduction in the number of [eviction] filings this year” compared to the typical average. “There is no reason that I can think of to believe that more people are at risk of eviction in October 2021 than in October 2019, 2017 or any other year,” he said.
Nevertheless, homelessness is perceived by many to be a large and growing problem in Athens. It is a complex phenomenon with more than one cause, but certainly, more evictions would not help the situation.
The commission instructed ACC staff to negotiate Athenian First’s contract, including their budget and scope of work. These negotiations should be completed shortly, and the contract will be sent back to the commission for their consideration on Nov. 2.
If approved, commissioners hope that Athenian First could begin the eviction prevention program before the end of the year.