Housing and homelessness plans head for an uncertain vote

As the mayor and commission consider two long-term plans to guide investment in affordable housing and help reduce homelessness in Athens, they’ve been debating much more than the technical nuts and bolts of the proposals. Commissioners have been questioning the primary assumptions behind these plans, sometimes in a way that speaks to their political philosophies as legislators. 

For example, should the government build housing for low-income renters and the homeless at all? Or would it be better to focus on housing for middle-class and working-class professionals? Is the local government even capable of dealing with these issues effectively? If so, should we focus on keeping out people who are homeless or on helping those who are already here? 

A potential compromise is brewing, but as of yet there’s been no resolution to this debate and commissioners will move towards a vote as divided as ever.

Other topics discussed at last Tuesday’s commission meeting include a temporary ban on short term rentals, and a proposal – sure to be rejected – that would require pets in Athens to be registered with the ACC Department of Animal Services.

Table of Contents

Who should we build housing for?
Moving forward
A possible compromise
Temporary ban on new short-term rentals
Pet registration to be rejected

Who should we build housing for?

Next week, the ACC Commission will vote on two strategic plans that have been in development for several months – the first describing how to invest in affordable housing most effectively, and the second on reducing and preventing homelessness in Athens.

It may seem like the two plans could work together, but they are completely separate, created by different consulting firms. Right now, it’s an open question – if the commission does decide to build or encourage new housing, who should that housing be for? 

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

According to Commissioner Dexter Fisher, the focus should be on single-family housing for middle-class and working-class professionals, not on affordable rental housing.

“I’m going to stop saying ‘affordable housing,’” Fisher said. “I’m going to start saying ‘workforce housing.’” 

With this comment, Fisher was not just proposing a name change to the affordable housing plan but also a sharp change to its focus. Right now, the plan talks more about rental housing than it does homeownership, although both are discussed.

“The way that this plan is set up now, I can’t support [it] … When I talk about workforce housing, I’m talking about school teachers. I’m talking about firemen. I’m talking about police officers…even when we recruit a junior faculty member at UGA, they won’t be able to afford to buy a house if they are single,” he said.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

Commissioner Ovita Thornton agreed with Fisher that the affordable housing plan would need significant, foundational changes before she would vote to approve it. She also said she would not support the plan to reduce homelessness in any case. 

“I’m working on [an amendment to the affordable housing plan] as we speak. That would probably be the only way I could support it,” Thornton said. “There’s nothing in the homeless one that even sparks any interest [for me]… We could fix this problem, but we keep depending on the government doing it all by ourselves.”

Instead of government action, Thornton called for an appeal to developers and bankers to solve Athens’ housing issues.

Her perspective was probably well-received by some conservative homeowners in the audience who had questioned both strategic plans during their public comments. One after another, homeowners spoke out to challenge the data presented in the reports and urge that the commission think before they act, fearful that increased property taxes might result.

“Both of these documents have fatal flaws in their logic, in their data and recommendations,” said homeowner Michael McClendon. “Both of these documents are designed to create the impression of a crisis and to stampede you into doing something. For example, there is no empirical evidence that supports the assertion that there is a 5,000 [unit] affordable housing gap in Athens.”

“There’s a fine line to put money into helping homeless as opposed to inviting them here,” said Linda Krotki. “If we do invite them here, whether meaning or not, what we’re going to see are infinite needs, there will be infinite needs coming our way. But there are finite resources.”

One speaker even questioned the idea that homeless people deserve political representation.

“Who elected each and every one of you? Is your obligation to the people of Athens-Clarke County, or is it to the homeless people of northeast Georgia?” said homeowner Steve Everett. “Your obligation is to people like me and all these other folks who are here and who have spoken at other times along the way. We pay your salaries, those folks don’t.”

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

After hearing what seemed like a long barrage of comments (although it was only six people), Commissioner Melissa Link spoke up directly against them later in the meeting.

“I’ve heard some comments today that those people don’t deserve to be treated for their homelessness,” Link said. “But what do we do with folks like that? We need to care for them whether or not they have lived in Athens for five years, ten years, two weeks, whatever. They deserve treatment, they’re human beings.”

Likewise, Commissioners Jesse Houle and Carol Myers let their colleagues know that they support the affordable rental housing aspect of both plans in addition to efforts to improve the availability of single-family workforce housing.

Myers also spoke up to support the first recommendation of the homelessness plan, which is to provide full-time staffing for the Athens Homeless Coalition.

“What this plan gives us is a start to do something much more coordinated in our community, starting with the staffing of the continuum of care,” Myers said.

Currently, the Athens Homeless Coalition is made up of volunteers mostly from the nonprofit sector. Despite not being paid for this work, they have the responsibility to implement Athens’ “continuum of care,” a federal program for fighting homelessness.

Moving forward

This commission conversation shows that there is very little agreement on these plans. Not only do commissioners not agree on the final recommendations, but they also disagree on the core assumptions that guided the creation of the plans in the first place.

Typically, when the commission hires a consulting firm to create a strategic plan, that plan is approved unanimously when it is finished. That’s because a ‘no’ vote would mean the commission thought the consulting firm did not do what was asked of them. Commissioner Allison Wright referenced this fact at the meeting when she suggested that commissioners who disapprove of the plans could still vote to accept them and then opt not to put funding towards their implementation.

That’s something that could happen when these plans come for a vote next Tuesday. The commission could also delay their approval, or approve of them with significant changes as Thornton and Fisher have proposed.

Finally, it’s still possible that the commission could give the plans their full support. There’s a potential compromise on the horizon that may allow Athens homeowners to lower their property taxes while still acting fully on study recommendations.

A possible compromise: OLOST

Sales taxes in Athens are currently set at 8 percent. 4% goes to the state government, 1% to the school district (ESPLOST), 1% goes to general government expenses (LOST), 1% goes to special projects (SPLOST) and the last 1% is for transportation (TSPLOST). Sales taxes are used heavily in Athens because they are relatively painless for homeowners and are thus much more politically-palatable than property taxes.

Right now, we’re at our limit for how high sales taxes can go without state approval, but it’s possible to go as high as 9 percent. A couple years ago, voters in Columbus decided to raise their sales taxes to 9 percent when they approved a SPLOST. The additional one percent they have comes from a rarely-used tax called “OLOST” which stands for “other local option sales tax.”

Mayor Kelly Girtz announced at last Tuesday’s meeting that OLOST could be the way Athens funds affordable housing and improved homeless services going forward. If we can get the new tax approved by the state government and by Athens voters, there would be plenty of money to fund both plans. There might even be enough left over to fund a substantial reduction in property taxes for homeowners.

Voters in Macon-Bibb County overwhelmingly approved an OLOST specifically for property tax reduction in 2021.

This makes a compromise on the housing plans a real possibility because it would appease the primary constituency who opposes them – conservative homeowners. If commission opposition to the plans is more fiscal than ideological, this could very well be the path commissioners decide to take.

Temporary ban on new short-term rentals

The commission voted unanimously to adopt a ban on new short-term rentals like AirBnBs in a special session last week. If you’ve operated your AirBnB anytime in the past 12 months, you’re fine to keep operating. But new AirBnBs will have to wait until November 7 before opening, which is when the ban expires.

The commission is working on permanent AirBnB regulation and is likely to extend the ban as needed until the permanent legislation is ready.

For more on this topic, check out the Flagpole article here.

Pet registration to be rejected

A few months ago, APN reported on a proposal to require all pets in Athens be registered with the ACC Department of Animal Services. The commission’s Legislative Review Committee had been considering this idea but they received many negative comments from the public. Being responsive to their constituents, they are now recommending that the proposal be dropped completely.

However, Houle is standing up for the idea and is forcing commissioners to take a vote on it.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

“There was a great deal of misinformation around what this program would look like or how it would be enforced,” Houle said. “The current status quo that our Animal Services department is in, and that animals in our community are in, is a pretty tragic one. Not only would it have helped people stay up with their rabies vaccines with their pets…it would reduce the number of euthanizations that we see happening unnecessarily because there isn’t a record of rabies vaccines that Animal Services can access.”

Myers disagreed with Houle, saying that “[Animal Services] didn’t seem to find really conclusive evidence that [pet registration] was very effective in a lot of places [where it has been tried].”

Unless there is a dramatic shift in commission opinion over the next week, the pet registration proposal will be rejected.

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