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Candidates Discuss Affordable Housing at First Mayoral Forum

From left, moderator Chaplain Cole Knapper, Bennie Coleman III, Mykeisha Ross, Mayor Kelly Girtz and Pearl Hall. Credit: Sarah Anne White

Three of Mayor Kelly Girtz’s challengers offered few policy specifics at the first mayoral forum of 2022, held at the Athens-Clarke County Library on Apr. 9 and organized by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Bennie Coleman III, Mykeisha Ross and Pearl Hall shared the stage with Girtz, while Fred Moorman and Mara Zúñiga did not attend. All three said they were running to bring unity to the city. At a relatively friendly and low-key affair, they did not say much to challenge Girtz on issues like affordable housing, nor did Girtz opt to spar with any of them. 

“We know in Athens, like every other vibrant community, we have an affordable housing crisis, and the crisis has many layers,” Girtz said. Part of the problem, he said, is that housing construction is not keeping up with population growth. He pointed to the newly passed inclusionary zoning policy offering developers incentives to build low-income housing, as well as $44 million in SPLOST and $11 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds set aside for affordable housing. Both are proportionately the highest of any community in Georgia, according to Girtz.

As with several other issues, Ross said she would look to comparable communities for solutions and pledged to take action. $1,400 a month per bedroom is not affordable, she said.

Coleman blamed contractors’ greed and touted manufactured homes as a solution. He said he would create a community of manufactured homes with rent capped at $500 a month. This could be done quickly, he emphasized. “We need something right now, at this moment,” he said.

Hall also said there is a shortage of housing, and pondered the definition of affordable. “This is a hard question for me, because I don’t know what is affordable housing,” she said. “Where you live is affordable if you can afford to live there.”

At times, the challengers sounded more like they were running for school board than mayor. “I’d overhaul the whole school system,” Coleman said at one point. “Fire them all.” 

Hall discussed behavioral problems in schools and said that parents often call on her to set their teenagers straight. “If you have a child that’s unruly, I’ll see about them,” she said, drawing chuckles from the audience. 

In response to a question about the city budget, Ross said she would give teachers a raise, even though teachers work for the Clarke County School District, which is independent from the Athens-Clarke County government.

In terms of the budget, Ross said her issue is not so much with the budget itself, but who is implementing the budget. She said she would “clean up the leadership” and fire Manager Blaine Williams. “I don’t know if he has the vision the community wants,” she said. (Firing the manager would also require commission approval.) Ross also proposed a resource hub to direct residents to services.

Coleman said he would make sure the roads are paved. The 66-year-old added that he would listen to input from constituents—but only by phone. “Please don’t get on the internet,” he said. “I refuse to deal with email.”

Hall said she would spend more money on seniors and establish a fund to help residents pay their rent and buy groceries. “We need to take care of the people in this town,” she said.

Girtz, who will be releasing his 2023 budget proposal later this month, ticked off several priorities: support for youth and seniors, transitioning to clean energy, safer streets, and improving bike infrastructure and transit. 

Future forums include one sponsored by the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce on Apr. 18 at 6:30 p.m. in the John Drew Auditorium at Piedmont Athens Regional, and a Red & Black forum Monday, May 2 at Ciné, tentatively scheduled for 5–7 p.m.