Eviction prevention program to restart

Renters in Athens who fall behind on payments and become at risk of eviction might be getting some help soon. 

The ACC Commission voted to restart an eviction prevention program that stalled out last year. Family Promise of Athens, working in partnership with The Ark, will revive the program and attempt to make some improvements on it. They’ll receive $900,000 from the American Rescue Plan to help them do that, funding which the commission allocated to eviction prevention but so far has been left unspent.

Between them, Family Promise and The Ark have over 38 years of experience running local rental assistance programs. They also have a history of contract compliance working with ACC’s Housing and Community Development department, unlike the program’s previous provider, Athenian First Development Corporation. In fact, Athenian First is currently under investigation for misuse of eviction prevention program funds, and their lack of contract compliance is the reason why the program had to be shut down in October.

Despite the bad end, the first iteration of this program helped 425 households avoid eviction at a cost of $1.4 million, according to the ACC government. That’s about $3,300 per eviction, a figure which may represent a substantial savings to the government compared to the cost of inaction.

Commissioner Tim Denson
Board of Education Member Tim Denson

Member of the Board of Education Tim Denson, a strong advocate for the program when he was a commissioner, went to the podium at city hall Tuesday night to make the fiscal case for eviction prevention. Denson said that he calculated that the average cost to the public for an eviction in Georgia to be $9,669 using the University of Arizona’s eviction cost calculator (you can check Denson’s work here). 

This figure includes the cost of providing emergency shelter, medical care and child welfare costs that could be avoided if a family was able to stay in their home. While calculating these expenses is a complex task with many variables, if Denson’s number is correct, it means the eviction prevention program saved Athens taxpayers over $6,000 for each household who would have otherwise been evicted.

“I hope that you all vote to implement this program and keep hundreds of families in their homes instead of sleeping on the streets, in tents, in cars and in shelters,” Denson told the commission. “The evidence shows that eviction prevention better sustains the physical, mental and financial health of individuals facing eviction and the entire Athens community.”

Denson also referenced a study published in the Indiana Health Law Review that calculated the total return on investment from rental assistance funding to be between 208% and 466%. This study calculated both the public costs of eviction, borne directly by the government, and the broader “social costs” paid by private individuals and organizations. The author found that the return on investment in both categories was larger than the amount paid in rental assistance, including administration expenses.

After public comment concluded, Commissioner Jesse Houle motioned to restart the eviction prevention program with Family Promise and The Ark as the new providers.

“We had to cut the program off because of issues with the vendor, but the program itself had proved to be very successful,” Houle said. “There’s a strong economic argument for this. It’s much cheaper to keep people in their homes than it is to try and re-house them. I also think there’s a strong moral imperative for us to do what we can for people who are in a precarious situation.”

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

Commissioner Melissa Link agreed with Houle, focusing on the commission’s moral obligation to act in her remarks.

“An eviction can set off a cavalcade of disasters for a family from which they can never recover,” Link said. “I believe we have a moral imperative to continue this program.”

Commissioner Mike Hamby generally agreed with his colleagues, and also pointed out that Family Promise and The Ark intend to implement improvements to the program. For example, the new version will serve families at risk of eviction in addition to families already in eviction proceedings. They’ll also provide wrap-around services, such as help looking for better-paying work and different housing if appropriate.

The commission voted 9-1 on Tuesday to restart the eviction prevention program. Commissioner Ovita Thornton was the lone vote against, and she also made a motion to deny the contract award which died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

Thornton’s reason for opposing the program was a bit muddled. In her comments, she claimed to support eviction assistance, and indeed she voted for the program last year when Athenian First was the beneficiary. 

So why did Thornton oppose it this year?

“We forget too fast,” Thornton said, “that we had three or four groups when we used CARES money to help people with eviction and food. Instead of building on groups that have worked through some challenges, we come up with a whole new program. We as a government should build on what’s working, tweak it and fix it. No, I’m not going to vote for this.”

Thornton is referencing the commission’s vote in 2020 to distribute federal CARES Act funding to various community nonprofits for food aid, homeless services and other assistance. The Ark was one of those nonprofits, a group now being funded to build on and improve the eviction prevention program from last year.

This program will serve at least 200 Athens households, with a preference for those under 50% of the area median income.

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A portion of Finley Street may be renamed “Linnentown Lane”

The commission accepted a recommendation from the Athens Justice and Memory Project to rename the portion of S. Finley Street between Cloverhurst Avenue and Baxter Street to “Linnentown Lane.” This stretch of road lies in-between Russell and Creswell Halls, two University of Georgia dormitories built on the site of the former Linnentown neighborhood during the urban renewal period of the 1960s and 70s.

This neighborhood was razed by UGA and the city of Athens to provide space for the dormitories, an act which the local government is now calling an example of “institutionalized white racism and terrorism.” The Athens Justice and Memory Project, led by former residents of Linnentown, is asking for this portion of Finley Street to be renamed to allow their neighborhood, and the injustice they endured, to be better remembered by the Athens and UGA communities.

After a review by ACC staff, this item will come back before the commission for an official vote, probably in August.

Neighborhood traffic calming

Speeding traffic can make it dangerous to walk outside in some Athens neighborhoods, but getting the government to do anything about it can sometimes be a challenge. 

That’s why the commission is reviewing their policies around which neighborhoods qualify for traffic calming. Right now, 65% of residents in a particular neighborhood need to agree before certain traffic calming devices like speed tables or traffic circles will be installed. That sounds like a good idea in theory, and it works well for highly-engaged neighborhoods. Yet, a 65% response rate is a high bar for some less-engaged, working-class neighborhoods to meet.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

Does that mean they shouldn’t receive pedestrian safety improvements? Houle doesn’t think so.

As the commission was about to authorize roughly $300,000 for traffic calming in places like Homewood Hills, Houle spoke up for some neighborhoods that have yet to reach consensus, but who desperately need traffic management as indicated by crash data. Houle proposed using cheaper, temporary speed tables in neighborhoods like Westchester and on Sunny Hills Drive for the time being, until they are either able to reach consensus or the policy requiring them to do so is changed.

The rest of the commission agreed, voting unanimously in favor of the idea. Thornton in particular spoke up in favor of changing the policy.

“I’m real concerned about the process that keeps leaving out so many communities because they don’t send back a postcard or don’t vote or whatever,” Thornton said.

Mayor Kelly Girtz agreed to send this policy to committee for further work and discussion.

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