City DopeNews

Heather Benham Resigns From the Athens Land Trust

Athens Land Trust Executive Director Heather Benham. Credit: Peter Frey/UGA

Another key player in local politics is also departing, as Heather Benham is resigning her position as executive director of the Athens Land Trust, one of the city’s largest nonprofits and a major supplier of affordable housing.

“It is with mixed emotions that we announce Heather’s departure,” Lara  Mathesn, president of the board of directors, said in a news release. “Her leadership has had a tremendous impact in both expanding the capacity of the organization and advancing its vision to center programming around land justice and the pursuit of equity. She has guided [Athens Land Trust] through numerous challenges with creative thinking, thoughtful strategy, and sheer determination, and as a result will be leaving the organization as a highly regarded model among national conservation and community land trust peers. While her shoes will be challenging to fill, to say the least, we are excited for her next chapter and will embrace the opportunity, as Heather would, for Athens Land Trust to reflect and continue to evolve.”

Benham told Flagpole that an opportunity to join Burlington Associates as an affordable housing consultant was too enticing to pass up. She plans to remain in Athens.

“The innovative nature of this organization has made it a perfect vehicle to respond to community needs in a holistic way that creates spaces and places that will benefit Athens for

generations. I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to work in a role where I can truly see

the fruits of my labor,” she said. “I am excited to join Burlington Associates, a national consulting cooperative with more than 30 years of commitment to working with organizations and communities engaged in the production and stewardship of permanently affordable housing, where I’ll continue to support the development of community land trusts around the Southeast.”

Benham was hired as the land trust’s first full-time employee in 2003. During her time as executive director, the organization grew to 25 employees and a $3 million budget. It has built 75 homes for low- and moderate-income first-time homebuyers; protected a number of farms and greenspaces around the county, such as the Williams Farm in East Athens; preserved historic Black homes like the Mack-Burney House on Reese Street; trained young people to become construction and agricultural workers; started community gardens and operated a farmers market. 

But the land trust has been controversial at times, with some Black leaders comparing its model to sharecropping and accusing it of gentrifying Black neighborhoods. Land trusts keep housing affordable by keeping the land underneath a home in trust, while the structure itself is owned by the buyer. The model stemmed from civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod’s efforts to help Black tenant farmers in the South collectively acquire property in the late 1960s and ‘70s.

The board will name an interim director and is expected to appoint a permanent director by the end of the year.