City DopeNews

Vote on Eviction Program Reveals Rift Among Commissioners

Commissioner Ovita Thornton. Credit: Adria Carpenter

The ACC Commission also voted unanimously on May 18 to begin the process of developing an eviction prevention program called Project RESET. This vote—which was both completely unnecessary and surprisingly contentious—threw into sharp relief the divisions spreading through Athens’ legislative body.

In Athens, a city with a large tenant population, a flood of evictions is looming as the CDC’s eviction moratorium is set to expire on June 30. Project RESET is a program designed to help low-income tenants avoid eviction through a negotiated settlement with their landlords. It provides a portion of the rent owed under the condition that the tenant is allowed to stay in their home with all late fees forgiven. 

The program was first developed in Gwinnett County, where it helped 3,791 people avoid eviction at a cost of $6 million from the federal CARES Act. Due to the program’s immense success, Gwinnett is currently in the process of launching Project RESET 2.0 using American Rescue Plan funding. The new and improved program will provide both rental and utility assistance for those who meet certain requirements, such as earning under 80% of Gwinnett’s median income.

Commissioner Tim Denson first heard about Project RESET in December as he was listening to a podcast by Gwinnett Commissioner Marlene Fosque. Realizing that a wave of evictions might hit Athens after the CDC’s moratorium expires, Denson worked quickly to set up a virtual meeting among Fosque, ACC Magistrate Judge Ben Makin and local housing nonprofits. Mayor Kelly Girtz also attended the meeting, which was held in January, along with commissioner Carol Myers and Mariah Parker.

Commissioners are not allowed to introduce legislation unilaterally, so procedural hurdles delayed Project RESET through March. By that time, ACC staff, including Manager Blaine Williams, were ready to explore the possibility of starting such a program. 

At a work session on Apr. 15, Williams asked commissioners if they wanted him to develop a plan to implement Project RESET in Athens. With a few shrugs or head nods, Williams would have been free to research Project RESET further and craft a plan for its implementation to be voted on at a later date.

Two commissioners—Allison Wright and Mike Hamby—chose to block Williams from doing any further research. Wright said that she didn’t know enough about the program to decide. Girtz clarified that no money was attached to the proposal yet and that Williams was simply asking whether there was enough interest for him to do further research. Williams then dropped the issue.

The work session on Project RESET requested by Wright was held on May 11. Some commissioners continued to refuse to give their consent for Williams to research the program even after they were educated on it. “This was a wonderful presentation today,” Commissioner Ovita Thornton said. “But maybe someone else has a great presentation and are not given that opportunity. I’m not going to support anything where we do not give the community input, no matter how good the program is.” (Public input would have been taken before the vote.)

Girtz proposed that staff move forward with developing the project concept for Project RESET and asked, again, if the commission would give its consent. Most commissioners nodded their heads in approval. But Hamby spoke up in opposition, saying, “If you don’t know the budget of all of this, then how are you going to design anything?” Finally, Girtz muted Hamby, who then unmuted himself and continued speaking out of turn before being muted a second time.

Last Tuesday, Thornton made a last-minute attempt to delay Project RESET yet again, perhaps for months, but her substitute motion was denied in a 4-6 vote with Hamby, Wright and Patrick Davenport voting with Thornton. Immediately after, a vote was held to allow staff to research the program, which passed unanimously.

“Politics is being put before policy that is for the betterment of our community,” Denson said. “We’re in a place right now where there’s more obstruction happening, and more politicking happening. It’s coming at the cost of helping our community.” 

Thornton agreed with Denson that politics is the reason why the Project Reset vote took place last Tuesday. “But the question is, who is playing the politics?” she said. Thornton then reiterated her concern, expressed at both the May 11 and May 18 meetings, that lack of community input was the reason she objected to the vote. 

Denson and Parker have already been reaching out to their constituents, going beyond public comment at commission meetings. “I spoke with many of my constituents about the concept in the months since its inception and have referenced it in my bimonthly newsletter as far back as March,” Parker said. “The question isn’t whether we had time to get input, it’s why the commissioners who stalled the project didn’t take advantage of that time.”

So, what’s really going on here? Parker has an idea: “My perception is that commissioners who have long held power, on this or other bodies, feel threatened by the proactive, expedient, innovative and thorough work of the younger, newer, more left-leaning commissioners,” such as herself, Denson and Jesse Houle, whose election last year tilted the commission leftward.

A longer version of this article originally appeared at Athens Politics Nerd.