Housing and criminal justice reform are at the top of the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission’s to-do list for 2021, if Mayor Kelly Girtz’s “state of the community” address last week is any indication.
Girtz touched on many topics during the wide-ranging half-hour speech, available at youtube.com/accgov, but devoted the most time to those two issues, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 40,000 people commute here from other counties for work, and at least some of them do so because they can’t find affordable housing in Athens, Girtz said. A report Girtz requested from the ACC Planning Commission recommends allowing auxiliary dwellings or “in-law suites,” smaller houses and increased density in neighborhoods where the infrastructure can support it.
“Our housing crisis hits hardest those who are on the financial margins, but it is even felt in households that would have been considered well-situated in previous eras,” Girtz said. “We are in a time that features the lowest supply of housing relative to population in this market in generations and perhaps ever.”
Girtz also discussed the North Athens Project, which will replace the aging low-income apartment complex Bethel Midtown Village off College Avenue north of downtown with at least an equal number of public and subsidized units, plus additional market-rate units and amenities, funded in part by $39 million in local sales-tax revenue and federal tax credits, along with investment from two private developers. The newly created Inclusion Office, headed by Krystle Cobran, is working with residents who were displaced by urban renewal in the 1960s.
“Broadly, we will apply lessons learned from past efforts: that neighborhoods must be integrated, and in their design we must consider more than just the countertops, appliances and floorboards,” he said. “We have to support residents in a way in which life outside the living room is also fruitful.”
Other target areas for higher-density and more walkable development include Georgia Square Mall, the former K-Mart on Barnett Shoals Road and the former Kroger on West Broad Street, Girtz said. Six new tax allocation districts around the mall and other areas could provide funding for sidewalks, parks, child care and other improvements.
Those new higher-density nodes could be better served by Athens Transit if voters choose to extend TSPLOST, the 1% sales tax for transportation, in 2022. While a project list is still under development, a portion of the tax would be devoted to transit, including buses along West Broad Street and Atlanta Highway every 10–15 minutes, Girtz said. For drivers and pedestrians, work is scheduled to start on the Loop interchange on Lexington Road this year and on Atlanta Highway in 2023. In addition, Girtz said that this year the Firefly Trail will be extended past the Loop, and new trails will serve College Station and Barnett Shoals roads on the Eastside, the Spring Valley/Winterville area, and Commerce and Newton Bridge roads in the north part of town. Sidewalks are under construction on King Avenue, Magnolia Street and Baxter Street in the historically underserved West Broad area.
“Just as we seek social and economic connections, these physical connections that allow us to easily stretch our legs and visit friends are a tangible reminder that we are creating an Athens for all residents,” he said.
Girtz also called homelessness “one of our most critical housing needs” and mentioned that ACC would be ramping up its Housing First approach. He told Flagpole that the city has been trying to use federal aid to house the homeless in apartments or motel rooms but has been running into issues with landlords/owners, so he wants to cut out the middleman and buy hotel and/or apartment properties.
On criminal justice, Girtz noted that overall crime is down 6% and murders are near a historic low, although there’s been an uptick in domestic violence and aggravated assaults that he attributed to the pandemic. He said he will appoint a Safety and Justice Advisory Committee staffed by an employee who will report directly to Manager Blaine Williams. The committee will have a broad portfolio not limited to criminal justice but including “upstream factors”—root causes of crime—such as physical and behavioral health, education and jobs. The committee will be charged with reducing crime and recidivism while creating a more equitable system that respects human dignity, Girtz said.
Far from defunding the police, Girtz said he wants to raise the pay scale to attract and retain officers. He also proposed a team of mental-health professionals “to head off challenges before they reach the crisis point” and relieve police of the burden of being the first responders to issues like homelessness, poverty and substance abuse.
“It is important not to artificially paint a zero-sum, all-or-nothing portrait of public safety,” he said. “Bringing a more complete set of tools to the job of a strong community benefits each of us, alongside benefiting the police department. As we provide much stronger preventative efforts, we can also acknowledge that the motorist rear ended by a drunk driver, the mother who has her back door broken in by a burglar and the person who experienced assault all deserve a rapid response. These efforts of law enforcement and proactive community support do not exist in opposition to each other, but in fact these multiple pursuits strengthen one another.”
Other issues the mayor covered included:
• Economic development: Girtz touted the ByoPlanet electrostatic cleaning technology plant and RDWC Industries, which opened a plant in Athens that turns used vegetable oil into biodegradable plastic-substitute products like straws. They employ 250 and 200 people, respectively. The local government also created the position of workforce development coordinator and the Athens Community Corps, which employs residents on beautification and environmental remediation projects. ACC also distributed $2.1 million in COVID-19 relief funds to small businesses.
• Water: Last year, the county bought a quarry that, after mining ceases in 10 years, will be turned into a reservoir for future droughts. Upgrades to two water reclamation plants are also in the works, which will further refine effluent pumped into the North and Middle Oconee rivers and allow industries to use non-potable water for manufacturing.
• Clean energy: $15 million in the current SPLOST is devoted to energy efficiency and clean energy production.
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