When Athens resident John Snow lived in Atlanta, he would break into abandoned houses or crawl underneath buildings to sleep. Today, the 50-year-old doesn’t consider his current situation better than when he was homeless.
Snow relies on friends and family for housing since being released from jail in January. After serving two months for a probation violation and not being able to work, he was no longer able to keep his apartment.
Like Snow, many Athens residents struggle with finding a place to live. Mayor Kelly Girtz said Athens adds about 10 affordable homes each year, but this is “just a drop in the bucket” compared to what the community needs.
It’s always SPLOST
The Athens-Clarke County SPLOST 2020 Citizens Advisory Committee has recommended a $44.5 million SPLOST project to the mayor and commission for the construction of affordable rental housing. However, this mixed-income development could exclude low-income people.
The low-income population may not be able to afford units developed under the SPLOST proposal if rent focuses on middle-income tenants.
The SPLOST project’s rent “target” is about $800 per month, former ACC Housing and Community Development Director Deborah Lonon said in her Jan. 18 presentation on the SPLOST proposal on Jan. 9. Athens Housing Authority, which focuses on providing housing resources to low-income people, rents two-bedroom units for about $600 per month, depending on the location.
More than 10,000 families in Athens earn below $46,400 per year, about $3,900 per month, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers the county’s low-income threshold.
Athens needs “public-private partnership,” Girtz said. He cited the Columbia Brookside project off Hawthorne Avenue as an example of this partnership. To be an effective model, this partnership involves the construction of housing units by private companies with assistance from local government, Girtz said.
Not a perfect solution
ACC seeks to work with local private and nonprofit “partners” as stated in the SPLOST project, but Athens for Everyone member Rachelle Berry said the group is wary of putting millions of dollars into the hands of developers who make more money building student housing than building housing for low-income residents. A4E sent a letter asking the mayor and commission to take a “people first approach” to the project.
“If the city is supporting this, if the city is putting money into this, it needs to be serving the people that are the least served in Athens,” Berry said.
In its letter, A4E asked the commission to release more information about the project. ACC officials have not released certain details because they do not want to create speculation in the local real estate market, HCD Interim Director Hayley Banerjee said.
Georgia’s state ban on rent control limits City Hall’s ability to keep housing affordable, so rent can increase every year. UGA students can afford “luxury” apartments that permanent residents cannot afford, raising the price point. These part-time residents crowd the rental market, Berry said.
The typical Athens resident makes $58,000, 45% of the income of a median UGA student’s family. UGA’s largest dorm, Russell Hall, was renovated for $44.5 million from 2017-2018. The 1,000-person high rise sits just up Baxter Street from Athens Housing Authority’s Parkview Homes.
AHA partnered with UGA Real Estate Foundation to finance about $250 million worth of tax-exempt bonds for new student housing on campus. In doing so, the group sought to reduce the market pressure in Athens neighborhoods which “holds down the price of rental housing,” AHA Executive Director Richard Parker said.
Housing resources often come with requirements such as income limits or a mental condition diagnosis.
Advantage Behavioral Health helps people in Northeast Georgia find places to stay, but clients must have a documented “severe and persistent mental illness,” Director of Business Development Evan Mills said.
While ABH does not discriminate against clients based on criminal record, the landlords ABH partners can reject those with felony drug, violent crime or sex offenses. UGA sociology professor Sarah Shannon said people with felony drug offenses cannot receive federal housing vouchers, and families can be kicked out if offenders are living with them.
“What we need to do is provide more stability for people that have this experience, because that’s what’s associated with being able to desist, whether it’s from drug use or crime,” Shannon said.
People either rely on others for a place to stay or are homeless if they don’t meet these stipulations. Snow stays with his 21-year-old step
daughter, and he pays her light and gas bills. He started working at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry manufacturing facility last week.
The Clarke Central High School graduate hopes to buy a house with a backyard for his grandchildren to play in one day. But his criminal record may pose challenges for housing assistance. He has not applied for AHA assistance due to the long wait list, he said. The AHA wait list ranges from six months to a year and a half.
Snow hopes to work and save enough money for a place of his own, but for now, he waits.
“I’m still at ground zero. Hopefully one day I get up, but it’s very, very cloudy,” Snow said.