City DopeMay 2024 ElectionNews

Commission Candidate Forum Tackles Housing and Homelessness

From left, moderator Suki Janssen and candidates Jason Jacobs, Rashe Malcolm, Stephanie Johnson, Sidney Waters and Carol Myers at an Apr. 8 Federation of Neighborhoods forum. Credit: Blake Aued

Athens-Clarke County Commission candidate Sidney Waters compared panhandling to pimping during a segment about homelessness at a recent Federation of Neighborhoods forum.

“Our government invited them here,” Waters said when asked a prepared question about homelessness. “I don’t know if they ever considered the effect this would have on our town and on our tax base.”

Waters said she has observed vans dropping off “shifts” of panhandlers at the College Station Road Kroger. “This is basically pimping,” she said. “These people are not homeless. I know because they’ve told me they can make three to four hundred dollars a day holding a sign.

“I don’t think the [ACC] government is actually looking for solutions,” she added.

“We’re going to have to agree to disagree about that,” said Waters’ opponent, District 8 incumbent Carol Myers, pointing to a strategic plan the commission adopted last year. Other small cities like Covington have the same problem “because people go where there are services,” she said.

As the largest city in the region, Athens is a hub for services, Myers said, and part of the county’s strategy is to talk to surrounding communities about not dropping off unhoused individuals in Athens. The plan also incorporates ideas from the service providers that make up the Athens Homeless Coalition. “We are using them and implementing them,” she said.

District 2 Commissioner Melissa Link was not present due to a long-planned trip to see the total eclipse, but submitted written responses to the prepared questions, going into more detail about the six goals and 10 strategies in the strategic plan. Helping the unhoused involves not just the government, but nonprofits, employers, the health-care industry and other institutions, she wrote.

Link’s opponent, downtown business owner Jason Jacobs, said solving the problem requires addressing the root causes of homelessness, such as mental health and substance abuse. He criticized the commission’s decision to spend $2.5 million on a since-closed homeless camp on county property. “We can do better with that kind of money,” he said.

District 6 candidate Stephanie Johnson divided the homeless into three groups: those who are addicted or mentally challenged; those who have a job but can’t afford rent; and “a population that wants to continue being homeless.” She advocated the use of federal block grants for housing, as well as accountability courts for drug and alcohol abuse. 

The other District 6 candidate, Rashe Malcolm, acknowledged that this issue is not her area of expertise, but indicated she is willing to learn. “We treat the symptoms, but we never get to the roots of the problems we have,” she said.

Similarly to homelessness, Myers pointed to ACC’s strategic plan when asked about a related issue, affordable housing. That plan calls for spending $5 million a year to subsidize housing for low- and middle-income families that can’t afford the market rate. Last month, the commission voted to devote $780,000 to down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers through a First American Bank & Trust program. That funding is part of the $2.5 million the commission has committed to the Athens Justice and Memory Project to rectify the destruction of the Linnentown neighborhood in the 1960s.

“I see a problem with us creating more Linnentowns,” Waters said. Despite evidence that Athens’ rising housing costs are largely driven by a lack of supply, she blamed the commission for encouraging gentrification by approving expensive high-rise apartments. “I see this as basically trying to run a certain group of people out of town… so instead of having cars, you will use buses to move around. I see this as us getting rid of the Classic City we used to know as it existed,” she said.

Johnson said the commission should in some way address out-of-town investors, look into the zoning code and recruit businesses that don’t drive up property values. “I’m not providing solutions,” she said, “but I’m providing things I think about.”

Malcolm agreed that zoning is important. She advocated for using publicly owned land to build affordable housing, streamlining the permitting process, and encouraging the redevelopment of abandoned buildings. In addition, ACC could do a better job of getting the word out about existing programs, Malcolm said. “There are programs out there—but people don’t know—for them to keep their homes,” she said.

Jacobs said ACC should provide incentives to local builders, fast-track the approval process and allow more duplexes and fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods. “If we could increase the inventory, obviously supply and demand would say those prices are going to come down,” he said.

Link blamed pressure from an “ever-growing population of wealthy students”—UGA enrollment has grown by about 7,000 in the past decade—for rising housing costs. Although at times she has resisted additional density in her intown district, Link said she supports looking for locations around campus for additional student housing, as well as “appropriate” density that protects historically Black neighborhoods.

Public safety is “about more than police stations,” Malcolm said. It’s about knowing your neighbors and your childrens’ teachers. “We start first by becoming a community again,” she said, drawing loud applause.

Johnson, whose husband is a police officer, talked about community policing and how police should get out of their car and get to know the community. She said morale is low because police are under increased scrutiny. She also brought up the discrepancy in pay between police and sheriff’s deputies, who earn less.

Waters claimed that the local police department is at just 67% of full strength. (At an Apr. 9 work session, commissioners learned that ACCPD only has 31 vacant positions out of 320, although the sheriff’s office has a 26% vacancy rate.) She called for hiring another 100 officers. Coming back again to the topic of high-rise apartments, she said the fire department doesn’t have the equipment to reach them, although the maximum height for a building is 100 feet, and ACC has a 137-foot ladder truck.

Myers said ACCPD is staffing up thanks to substantial raises the mayor and commission have handed out the past few years. She said statistics provided by ACCPD show crime is down 10% overall in 2024. “But there are real problems here,” she said, referencing a 3-year-old who was recently shot to death at the Hallmark mobile home park. Myers attributed violent crime to a lack of opportunity and youth programs, which she said the mayor and commission are working to address by funding after-school activities.

Like Malcom and Johnson, “My focus would be on community policing,” Jacobs said. He also related the issue of crime to affordable housing. “I’d love for our police officers and firefighters to be able to live in the community they serve,” he said.

Link, in a written statement, also said crime is down significantly. She blamed shootings on “pervasive and permissible firearms in our community,” thanks to the Georgia legislature’s lax gun laws.

Asked about the newly controversial 2019 resolution declaring that Athens is a welcoming place for immigrants, Jacobs said he wants to ensure ACC is following state and federal law.

Malcolm related her experience as a Jamaican immigrant who now owns a business. “I don’t want to see that [welcoming attitude] go away, because people like me might leave,” she said.

Johnson said she supports the language of the resolution, but not the way it was introduced. She said commissioners were “duped” into supporting it.

Waters said the resolution “has run its course.” She said she “didn’t feel any animosity at all” when her family moved to Athens from Auburn, AL, and that 80 different languages were spoken in public schools when she was on the school board.

Myers was first elected in 2020, but she said she would have voted for the resolution if she had been on the commission, calling it “heartwarming,” and noting that immigrant families were being separated and were victims of violence at the time. “A resolution is a statement of value,” she said, but “it has no legal weight.”