Despite obstruction, ACC Commission moves to protect tenants from eviction

Full disclosure: You might be able to tell that the author has pretty strong feelings on this topic. For an edited, more neutrally-framed version of the same events, see the Flagpole article here.

The ACC Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin the process of developing an eviction prevention program called Project RESET. This vote, which was both completely unnecessary and surprisingly contentious, throws into sharp relief the divisions spreading through Athens’ legislative body.

What is Project RESET?

Project RESET is a program designed to help low-income tenants avoid eviction through a negotiated settlement with their landlords. Landlords normally evict tenants only as a last resort after an extended failure to pay rent. That’s because when a tenant is evicted the landlord gives up any hope of receiving that back rent.

That’s where Project RESET comes in. It provides a fraction of the rent owed (say 70% or 80%) under the condition that the tenant is allowed to stay in their home with all late fees forgiven. The program was first developed in Gwinnett County where it helped 3,791 people avoid eviction at a cost of $6 million, which was provided by the federal CARES Act. 

Due to the program’s immense success, Gwinnett is currently in the process of launching Project RESET 2.0 using American Rescue Plan funding. The new and improved program will provide both rental and utility assistance for those who meet certain requirements, for example, earning under 80% of Gwinnett’s median income.

Back in Athens, a city with a large tenant population, we’ve got a flood of evictions looming as the CDC’s eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30. Fortunately, we also have a windfall of relief money headed our way from the American Rescue Plan. Under these conditions, you might think a Project RESET-style program here would be a no-brainer. 

Could keeping people in their homes possibly be contentious within Athens’ progressive commission? The answer is a resounding YES.

A divided commission has delayed community aid

Commissioner Marlene Fosque
Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque

Commissioner Tim Denson first heard about Project RESET in December as he was listening to a podcast from Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque. Realizing that a wave of evictions might hit Athens after the CDC’s moratorium expires, Denson worked quickly to set up a virtual meeting between Fosque and non-profits working on housing here in Athens. Mayor Kelly Girtz also attended the meeting, which was held in January, along with Commissioner Carol Myers, Commissioner Mariah Parker and others.

According to Denson, the idea of Project RESET was well-received by those who attended that meeting. But before he could start the process of making it a reality, there were procedural hurdles that had to be overcome first. The most important of these was the very structure of the commission itself, which generally does not allow commissioners to propose legislation.

These procedural hurdles delayed Project RESET through March. By that time, ACC staff, including Manager Blaine Williams, were ready to explore the possibility of starting such a program here in Athens. 

At a work session on April 15, Williams directly asked the commission if they wanted him to develop a plan to implement Project RESET in Athens. With a few shrugs or head nods, Williams would have been free to research Project RESET further and craft a plan for its implementation to be voted on at a later date.

But that’s not what happened.

Commissioner Allison Wright
Commissioner Allison Wright

Despite many commissioners being in favor, two commissioners — Allison Wright and Mike Hamby — chose to block Williams from doing any further research (Commissioner Ovita Thornton would have blocked it as well, but she was not present).

Wright said that she didn’t know enough about the program to decide. Girtz clarified that no money was attached to the proposal yet and that Williams was simply asking whether there was enough interest for him to do further research, but his plea was to no avail. Williams then dropped the issue.

Commissioners continue to obstruct eviction protection

Back in January, Wright had declined Denson’s invitation to learn about Project RESET from its founders. Denson had even sent her a policy brief about the program at that time, and the brief was sent out yet again on April 16. Despite this, Wright asked for a work session on the topic, ostensibly so she could learn more, effectively delaying Project RESET by a month. 

The work session on Project RESET requested by Wright was held on May 11. Predictably, some commissioners continued to refuse to give their consent for Williams to research the program even after they were educated on it.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton, headshot
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

“This was a wonderful presentation today,” said Thornton. “But maybe someone else has a great presentation and are not given that opportunity. I’m not going to support anything where we do not give the community input, no matter how good the program is.”

“How much is this going to cost? That’s kind of an important component before we decide how to move forward,” said Hamby.

It’s unclear why Thornton felt it was necessary for the public to weigh in even before ACC staff would be permitted to research this topic. Public input would certainly be allowed before the vote, both at the agenda-setting and voting sessions, after staff brought a viable plan to implement Project RESET back to the commission for their consideration. Thornton, of course, is well aware of commission procedure.

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

Hamby’s comments are equally puzzling. He is currently the longest-serving member of the body and of course understands that staff would be unable to provide an accurate cost estimate before being allowed to do the necessary research.

Ignoring these comments, Girtz proposed that staff move forward with developing the project concept for Project RESET and asked, again, if the commission would give their consent.

Most commissioners nodded their heads in approval. But Hamby spoke up in opposition, saying, “If you don’t know the budget of all of this, then how are you going to design anything?”

It goes without saying that budgeting and project design go hand-in-hand. Yet Hamby continued, somewhat belligerently, until finally he was muted by Girtz. As mayor, Girtz has the power to determine who is allowed to speak at commission meetings, although this power is rarely if ever exercised quite so bluntly.

Mayor Kelly Girtz
Mayor Kelly Girtz

Hamby then unmuted himself and continued speaking angrily in opposition, out of turn, before being muted a second time as Girtz made it clear he was exercising his mayoral authority to take the floor. This is something Girtz, who strives for consensus and cooperation in his role as mayor, has never done before.

In the face of such determined obstruction from some of their colleagues, the mayor and commissioners in support of Project RESET had no choice but to force a vote on the issue in a special called session on May 18.

An unnecessary vote

If Hamby stayed silent as Girtz was assigning staff the task of researching Project RESET, a vote on the program would not have been needed so early in the process. But he did, and in so doing he created a logjam that needed an official commission vote to break through.

Thornton made a last-minute attempt to delay Project RESET yet again, perhaps for months, but her substitute motion was denied in a 4-6 vote with Commissioners Hamby, Wright and Davenport voting with Thornton.

Immediately after, a vote was held to allow staff to research the program, which passed unanimously.

You read that right — after over a month of delay, with repeated attempts at obstruction including just moments before, all ten commissioners were finally able to agree that letting staff research Project RESET was a good idea, after all.

If there was agreement all along, it certainly would have been easier and quicker for the commission to give the go ahead when first asked about it by Williams on April 15, or at any time since.

Why didn’t they?

What’s really going on

According to Denson, it’s about politics.

Commissioner Tim Denson
Commissioner Tim Denson

“Politics is being put before policy that is for the betterment of our community. We’re in a place right now where there’s more obstruction happening. And more politicking happening. It’s coming at the cost of helping our community,” Denson said in a comment to APN.

It’s no secret that tensions within the commission have been rising ever since Commissioner Jesse Houle was sworn in on November 17, giving the body’s left-most bloc significant power. Since political power on a body like the ACC Commission is zero sum, growing power for the left means that other commissioners, such as Hamby, Wright and Thornton, have less.

Speaking to APN, Thornton agreed with Denson that politics is the reason why the Project Reset vote took place last Tuesday. “I totally agree. But the question is, who is playing the politics?” she said.

Thornton then reiterated her concern, expressed at both the May 11 and May 18 meetings, that lack of community input was the reason she objected to the vote. 

“All of us ran on transparency and community input. This [vote] did not have it. What should have happened was 30 days for public comment and then a vote. It is not about Project RESET, it’s about community input, and is this the best plan?” Thornton said, expressing doubts that Project RESET was the best plan to address evictions.

These comments don’t square with the reality that there will, of course, be weeks for public comment before the actual vote to implement Project RESET is taken. No commissioner has ever tried to cut public comment short with regards to this program and Thornton is well aware of this fact. In fact, Denson and Parker have already been reaching out to their constituents, going beyond public comment at commission meetings. 

Commissioner Mariah Parker
Commissioner Mariah Parker

“I spoke with many of my constituents about the concept in the months since its inception and have referenced it in my bi-monthly newsletter as far back as March. The question isn’t whether we had time to get input, it’s why the commissioners who stalled the project didn’t take advantage of that time,” Parker said in a comment to APN.

So, what’s really going on here?

Parker has an idea. “My perception is that commissioners who have long held power, on this or other bodies, feel threatened by the proactive, expedient, innovative and thorough work of the younger, newer, more left-leaning commissioners.”

It is perhaps this feeling of being threatened that has led some commissioners to harass their younger colleagues via text message and over the phone during commission meetings, as Parker referenced during the explosive debate over the Athens Eats Together program in March.

After many bitter disputes over the past few months, the relationship between certain commissioners may sadly be fractured beyond repair. Whoever you feel is to blame, there’s little doubt that fighting on the body is harming their ability to work together for the benefit of Athens residents.

“It’s been hinted at, that for whatever weird reason I’m doing this for political means,” Denson said. “I find that extremely offensive and hurtful. We’ve got to stop playing politics. Let’s do the right thing and stop fighting with each other.”

With the commission set to spend $57 million from the American Rescue Plan, Athenians can only hope that commissioners are able to set aside their differences and quickly agree on an efficient way to distribute these funds for the betterment of all.

If they are unable to do that, we will all suffer as vital aid continues to be delayed getting to the people who need it.

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