It’s time to end homelessness in Athens

Homelessness and housing insecurity is an enormous problem in Athens, Georgia, which has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, our response to the pandemic as a society has proven that the problem can be managed, and maybe even eliminated, as long as we have the political will to get it done.

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Welcome to part two of APN’s series on Insecurity in Athens. Last time, we focused on food insecurity and in this video we’ll take a look at housing.

As you may have heard, an eviction crisis is looming in America, with the floodgates set to open when the Center for Disease Control’s moratorium on evictions expires on June 30. What steps are we taking in Athens to address this issue? And how can we emerge from this pandemic as a stronger community, with fewer people suffering from housing insecurity than when we started?

Let’s take a look!

Unlike food insecurity, there’s no single national definition of housing insecurity, so I can’t explain the term precisely. It’s a broad category that includes aspects of affordability, instability, safety, quality and homelessness. I’m going to focus on instability and homelessness in this video, but I think everyone knows we’ve been having increasing issues around housing affordability as well. Over the past four years, the average rent in Athens has gone up 33%. Has your income gone up 33%? I’m gonna guess, probably not. And the minimum wage hasn’t gone up at all.

Athens has had major issues with housing insecurity even before the pandemic, but in March of 2020, things got a lot worse. Even as late as January of this year, 1 in 5 renters nationwide weren’t caught up on their rent. For Black renters, that number is even worse at over 1 in 3. Locally, given our high poverty rate, I’m sure the numbers are just as bad if not worse.

Fortunately, the CDC issued an eviction moratorium in September. They took this unprecedented step, not to relieve housing insecurity, but to help slow the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging social distancing, something that’s difficult if you’re sleeping on a friend’s couch or at a homeless shelter. But to gain the order’s protection, you have to meet certain conditions. So, who’s protected, and to what extent? I went to speak with Sarah Gehring and Chad McCranie, attorneys with Georgia Legal Services, to help clear this up.

Sarah Gehring, Georgia Legal Services: “The kind of people that it covers are people who would be evicted because they are behind on rent payments or payments of late fees or other money problems with their landlord who are below a certain income. It’s like six figures, so it’s a pretty high ceiling. And who would become homeless or have to live in really close quarters with other people if they were evicted. That’s the general kind of person it’s meant to protect. And in order to take that protection, you have to sign an affidavit that says you are all those things and hand it to your landlord.”

So the order only prevents evictions due to failure to pay rent. If you’re being evicted for another type of lease violation, or if you’ve overstayed your lease, the CDC order probably won’t help you.

On the plus side, most evictions are due to failure to pay rent, so it seems the order has helped quite a bit in Athens. According to ACC Magistrate Judge Ben Makin, there are normally around 3,000 eviction cases filed in Magistrate Court every year. But in 2020, that number was cut down to about half normal, a pace which continued into 2021. Although another reason why eviction filings might be down is the slow pace of court proceedings these days due to the need for social distancing. Eviction cases in particular are normally required to proceed through the courts very quickly.

Ben Makin, ACC Magistrate Judge: “In general, a dispossessory case has to be resolved within 14 days of the date that the tenant is served with the paperwork by the Sheriff. That’s incredibly fast, that’s faster than any other case I think in the courthouse gets resolved.”

But due to a judicial emergency issued by the Georgia Supreme Court, these cases are now allowed to take quite some time.

It’s kinda sad or funny in a way, but the pandemic may have actually improved housing security in Athens in some important ways.

Sarah Gehring: “Chad specializes in protecting low-income tenants. I’m a staff attorney with our office. I do general work. A lot of the attorneys in our office are general. We’ve all started picking up these eviction cases, which we didn’t before. Because before, under Georgia law, if you don’t pay rent, unless there are some really specific things that happened, there’s almost nothing for you. And now, for the first time, there’s this widespread protection of tenants, of low-income tenants in Georgia.”

Beyond the CDC order, there’s all the relief funding which has been an enormous help to local nonprofits fighting homelessless. Athens received $6.6 million in CARES Act relief funding last year. This year, after the victories of President Biden and Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff here in Georgia, we’re set to receive $57 million from the American Rescue Plan. If this money is spent well, it should be enough to completely reverse the effects of the pandemic on housing security and many other local needs. But let’s not celebrate just yet. Even if we do go back to normal, that would mean going back to an Athens that has huge and growing problems with both housing affordability and homelessness. It might be worse for some people here than you realize.

Shae Post, Executive Director of the Athens Area Homeless Shelter: “I want to take every opportunity I can to express how dire the problem is and how pervasive the issue of family homelessness is in Athens.”

I spoke with Shae Post, Director of the Athens-Area Homeless Shelter to try to better understand family homelessness in Athens, which they’ve been fighting for decades.

Shae Post: “The conversation really does tend to revolve around individuals who are experiencing homelessness and the camps that we have in town. People can see that it’s happening. With family homelessness, you can’t see that it’s happening but it is an even larger issue.

And the reason why it’s not as visible is that often parents will find some place for their children to sleep, and sometimes they’ll be able to stay there too, but it might be a different place every night while mom or dad or both sleep in their car or sleep at the park. It’s just not as readily visible.

And to give you an idea of how pervasive the problem is, every year the Clarke County School District has a social worker who works exclusively with children who have experienced homelessness throughout the school year. So every year, she starts her case load at zero, and by the end of the year, that case load is generally over 900 students. 900 students who have experienced homelessness throughout the school year. It’s an incredibly pervasive issue in our community.”

This is a difficult, nearly impossible problem to fully address in normal times. But after receiving $57 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan, perhaps it’s finally time to take action and set a goal of eliminating homelessness in Athens forever. I spoke with Commissioner Tim Denson who has a plan, borrowed from Gwinnett county, to get us moving towards that goal. It’s called Project Reset.

Commissioner Tim Denson: “Project Reset is a program that helps people avoid eviction. When a tenant or a landlord come here to Magistrate Court and the landlord is trying to get a person removed, instead they will be invited to enter into this program, Project Reset, the landlord and the tenant will agree, and then a settlement will be negotiated with the landlord, say at 70% or 80% of what the money was owed, and if they accept that settlement, that keeps them out of the Magistrate Court, that stops the eviction right there, settles the payments, ends any late fees and really resets the tenant, where the name comes from, resets the tenant where they have no debt there, they can remain living in their home.”

Through this program, the local government would pay a percentage of the back rent owed by low-income tenants through a negotiated settlement with the landlord, who would then agree to forgive the remainder of the debt.

Commissioner Tim Denson: “So it’s kind of a win-win situation. And it’s a win for the community also because having these evictions happen forces people out of their homes, makes more people homeless in our community, which puts a strain on our community, and it’s especially problematic when you have a pandemic happening here too. So really, the community wins, the tenants win and the landlords win.”

If Commissioner Denson gets his way, not only will Project Reset help people get through the looming eviction crisis, but it will become a permanent program offered by the county.

Commissioner Tim Denson: “We can actually make a better world, even after this right, we can come out of this pandemic better than we were before we got into it. And by doing this, reseting somebody’s financial situation when it comes to their housing, it has positive economic impacts, plus housing, plus health, quality of life, everything.”

But since this plan only helps those who already have a home, it won’t do anything, at least in the short term, to address the problems of those who are already homeless.

Shae Post: “From the point of view of housing affordability and housing stability, we’re working with families who are already sort of “off the precipice,” they are in the margins already, once they get to us, and our goal is to find stable housing and its really an uphill battle in this community because of the lack of affordable housing, because of earning power and minimum wage.”

Thanks for watching. If you liked this video, why not hit the like button. And if you want to help me make more videos like this, you can become an APN member at athenspoliticsnerd.com/join. Thanks so much.

Drone footage courtesy of Go Drone Video Productions.

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