Last fall, Mayor Kelly Girtz asked the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission to develop a set of policies to promote affordable housing and mixed-income development across Athens. After months of work, planning commissioners finally unveiled their recommendations Oct. 20.
These policies include many tweaks to Athens’ zoning codes and design guidelines, some with potentially big implications. For example, they are recommending allowing new accessory dwellings (also known as “in-law suites”) up to 800 square feet to be constructed in all single-family residential zones. This would allow for more efficient use of some lots and help add to Athens’ supply of moderately-priced rental units.
They also suggest completely eliminating the minimum square footage for new construction. The minimum footprint in single-family zones is 1,000 square feet, which prevents smaller, more affordable homes and tiny houses from being built in Athens. They’d completely remove the limit except in multi-family complexes, which would still have to build units 450 square feet or over.
Likewise, the planning commission supports allowing new duplex construction again. They’re also giving the thumbs up to “cottage courts,” which are U-shaped clusters of smaller homes oriented towards a central courtyard instead of towards the street. Homes that don’t face a street currently require special approval.
Finally, they recommend adopting “inclusionary zoning” in Athens, which some cities use to mandate that a percentage of new units be affordable for the working class. The ACC Planning Commission is suggesting a similar but voluntary program where developers could opt in by setting some units aside as permanently affordable in exchange for certain benefits, such as increased density or reduced parking requirements. Depending on how the program is structured, it’s possible the benefits developers receive could be worth more than the costs of providing the extra affordable housing, meaning everyone wins. While other cities in Georgia, such as Atlanta, have a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy, planning commissioners in Athens decided to recommend a voluntary approach out of concern that a mandatory ordinance would violate state law.
Throughout the 98-page list of recommendations, the planning commission connects the affordable housing problem to historical inequities. One section of the document explicitly calls out Athens’ continuing history of “racial and economic segregation,” citing several supposedly race-neutral policies, such as the minimum size for new construction and single-family zoning, that have allowed segregation to continue. It is this list of exclusionary policies that they now seek to reverse with their current recommendations.
The process of implementing the ideas will take years, but at least some commissioners are ready to get started. “I can’t commend the planning commission and staff enough for the thoroughness of this. We’ve been looking forward to it for a while,” Commissioner Tim Denson said. [Chris Dowd]
Commission Might Regulate Airbnbs
Did you know that Airbnb hosts in Athens are required to pay local taxes as if they were running a hotel? If that’s news to you, you’re not alone.
In recent months, ACC commissioners have been considering new regulations on short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs. They were preparing to vote on making these kinds of rental properties start paying the 7% local hotel/motel tax when lawyers discovered that this is already required by the local code.
ACC Assistant Attorney Sherry Hines informed commissioners that short-term rental hosts are required to pay the hotel/motel tax, even if they almost never do. A recent change in Georgia law requires that short-term rentals pay sales tax as well, although this is handled by the platform and not by individual hosts.
“This is a business that people are running. They’re making money,” Commissioner Andy Herod said. “If they’re being run as businesses, they need to be regulated as businesses and they should be paying taxes just like everybody else.”
Airbnb hosts must also apply for an occupation tax certificate, commonly referred to as a business license. “If you don’t have one of those, technically you’re violating the law,” Herod said.
According to ACC staff, the county could raise up to $2.3 million a year by collecting taxes like these, which short-term rentals are typically not paying right now. The reason why they have gone unpaid for so long is because of state law O.C.G.A. § 36-74-30, which prohibits local governments from requiring rental properties to register with the county. Without knowing which Airbnbs are in operation and where, it’s impossible to collect taxes from them.
The state legislature considered adopting a law to make it much easier to collect these taxes directly platforms in the same way that sales taxes are now collected. The bill passed the Georgia House of Representatives, but died this year in the Senate.
While commissioners can’t force short-term rentals to register for taxes, they can create a registry themselves. Certain IT companies create and maintain these sorts of registries as a service, and it seems likely that commissioners will vote to seek out these services when they meet again on Nov. 3. These sorts of IT companies also generally offer a complaint hotline service. Renters could report unsafe conditions or false Airbnb advertising. Neighbors would have someone to call when the noise or rowdy behavior gets out of hand.
Commissioners are also considering additional regulations on short-term rentals, which could include banning them altogether in certain zoning areas.
Also at their Oct. 20 meeting, commissioners discussed a new work plan for the ACC Office of Operational Analysis. Commissioner Melissa Link, chair of the audit committee, wants to focus the auditor’s efforts on the Police Department as a way of supporting the work of the upcoming Safety and Justice Taskforce. Link also wants to audit the Board of Elections, focusing on communication between staff and the board, but also taking a look how they interact with state agencies. The vote on the auditor’s work plan will take place on Nov. 3, but it may have some difficulty passing, due to concerns shared broadly among commissioners that the Office of Operational Analysis has been slow in carrying out past audits. Deadlines set for previous audits have been consistently pushed back throughout the past year.
Commissioners will also vote Nov. 3 on banning Bird scooters and similar devices. There was broad agreement that these devices create pedestrian and traffic hazards and are difficult to regulate. A report from the Athens in Motion Commission found that scooters are involved in 13 times more accidents than bicycles, and that Bird drivers only rarely wear helmets. The ban only covers rental scooters—it doesn’t prevent riding one you own.
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