When it comes to affordable housing, Athens-Clarke County commissioners think the state is tying their hands, and at least one state representative thinks the local government can do more.
At a meeting with members of Athens’ legislative delegation last week, Commissioner Melissa Link asked them to loosen restrictions on inclusionary zoning (a policy that requires below-market-rate units in new development) and impact fees (paid by developers to offset costs for infrastructure like sidewalks). She also wants the legislature to address other causes of inequality and rising real-estate prices in Athens, such as UGA’s low pay scale and the lack of means testing for HOPE scholarships. Many students come from affluent families that can afford high rents, which drives up rents for everyone, she said.
“Fifty percent of students come from the top 20 percent income bracket, and they have a huge impact on housing affordability,” Link said.
State Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) urged ACC to take action on its own, by allowing smaller lot and home sizes and eliminating regulations that drive up the cost of housing. “A lot of these rules have been created over the years to stop low-income families from moving into an area,” said Frye, who’s also executive director of the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, an organization that uses volunteer labor to build low-cost housing. Habitat has applied for a $120,000 grant to build two “tiny-ish” houses of about 650 square feet in Habitat’s Dorsey Village subdivision off Hawthorne Extension.
Commissioners’ other requests include: moving local elections back to November; restoring the commission map of eight regular districts and two super-districts that the legislature changed to 10 regular districts in 2012; allowing police to use radar to enforce speed limits on residential streets; allowing the local government to regulate septic tanks; improving the accuracy of sales-tax disbursements; extending historic-district tax breaks to non-conforming properties; and allowing local governments to remove monuments. The wish list is largely the same as past years, and the GOP-controlled legislature rarely approves ACC requests.
State law prohibits removing or altering monuments except for preservation purposes. Frye urged commissioners to go ahead and move the controversial Confederate memorial in the Broad Street median downtown anyway. The county already had to repair damage from traffic once, so there’s a good argument for moving it to a safer—and less conspicuous—place under the state law, he said.
“I would move it, and I would dare the state to say something about it,” Frye said.
Frye and Rep. Jonathan Wallace (D-Watkinsville), who lost his re-election bid earlier this month, were the only delegation members to attend. Rep. Deborah Gonzalez (D-Athens), who also lost, and Sens. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) and Frank Ginn (R-Athens) were not there. Republicans Marcus Wiedower and Houston Gaines, who defeated Wallace and Gonzalez, respectively, were in the audience. The legislature was in the midst of a special session to approve funding to repair damage from Hurricane Michael in South Georgia last week, as well as restore a jet-fuel tax break.
Earlier that day, at a Republican caucus meeting in Atlanta, Cowsert lost his position as Senate majority leader, the chamber’s No. 3 job. Most Republican senators backed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for governor, while Cowsert supported his brother-in-law, Brian Kemp. The caucus elected Sen. Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton) majority leader.
Commissioners also heard from Housing and Community Development Director Deborah Lonon about recommendations from Mayor Nancy Denson’s Task Force on Inclusion and Equity, appointed in 2017 in response to widespread reports of discrimination at downtown bars, sparked by the “n*****ita” drink at the Confederate-themed bar General Beauregard’s.
The task force recommended creating an Office of Equity and Inclusion to work with other county departments on youth programs, recruiting minority employees, awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses, public safety, housing, economic development and other issues. It also recommended a citizens advisory board that would collaborate with the office, hold public forums and refer discrimination complaints to the proper authorities, but would not have the power to judge discrimination complaints or hand down sanctions itself. A third body—the Community Equity and Inclusion Partnership Council—would consist of organizations outside county government drawn from the master-planning group Envision Athens. A fourth—the Equity and Inclusion Leadership Team—would consist of ACC department heads and other managers and focus on internal policies. Specific actions could include hiring and promoting members of under-represented groups, expanding youth development programs, stepping up efforts to assist minority-owned businesses and increasing diversity on government boards.
Starting Nov. 13, work sessions are now being held at City Hall, which is equipped with cameras, and televised on Charter’s government access channel, 180. They can also be viewed at youtube.com/accgov.
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