The North Athens Project, Explained (October Local News Update)

The North Athens Project, Explained (October Local News Update)


Welcome to Athens Politics Nerd where we break
down commission meetings to bring you the important local news. Last week, the Mayor and Commission finally
started to resolve the crisis at animal control and they made huge progress on affordable
housing in Athens. All this, coming up! You can keep up with local news, Georgia politics
and national policy by subscribing. Public outrage boiled over in July, when 32
cats and kittens were unnecessarily euthanized by ACC Animal Control due to a suspected panleuk
infection. The infection turned out to be a false alarm,
but county staff never stopped using the excuse of an infection as justification for the killings. To the animal welfare community, this seemed
all too similar to another mass euthanization that happened just a year ago, so they began
to organize to ensure that this would never happen again. They had other concerns too, about the more
fundamental operations of Animal Control; concerns that extend all the way from the
handling of finances and volunteers to basic conditions for animals at the shelter. In short, things at Animal Control have been
a complete mess. David Fluck, the Director of Central Services,
was asked to resign in the wake of this scandal. Lots more changes seem on the way for Animal
Control as well. At their meeting on October 1st, the mayor
and commission voted on promoting the Animal Control division to it’s own department. This gives us the opportunity to create an
animal services division that could be stellar, and that’s the goal I think we all share. Now it will report directly to the Manager’s
office instead of to the Director of Central Services… whoever that ends up being. They also created new three full-time positions,
converted from five part-time ones, in the hopes that they’ll be more attractive to
potential recruits. All in favor? Aye. The commission then decided to direct the
Office of Operational Analysis to conduct a full audit of Animal Services. This will increase transparency and offer
a baseline for comparison after all of the coming changes are finally in place. The vote on this item and the previous one
were both unanimous. The cats in town should sleep a little easier
with these changes being made… hey, get out of my mashed potatoes! Now, let’s talk about affordable housing! There’s some big news about Bethel Homes. I think this is going to be transformational
for the people who currently live in Bethel. I think this is going to be transformational
for our downtown. I’m really excited about it. But first, let me take you to 250 Dublin Street. This lot was re-zoned for a planned development
in February, but the developer has since backed out and put it up for sale. The Athens Land Trust was invited to build
three affordable homes there out of 13 back in the original concept, but when the development
fell through, they stepped up to buy the entire lot. I’m very excited about this project. I was excited about it in its first iteration,
thinking we were gonna get three out of 13 homes to be permanently affordable, single-family
homes. All 13 homes will now be held in trust and
stay permanently affordable according to the land trust model. I do think that the Athens Land Trust model
is one that works well for a lot of folks, but we can have our ideas among this body
about what works best but ultimately represent the people. I know there’s a lot of people out there
who would like a greater variety of options. Looking ahead, knowing that we do have a menu
of options that we’re working hard to bring to the people, I feel comfortable moving ahead
with this. Okay… now for Bethel Homes. This is something that’s been in the works
for years and has just now come to light. Bethel Midtown Village is a private development
that’s about 60 years old. The owners live in Atlanta and apparently
never do any maintenance. They just sit back and collect an income that’s
guaranteed by the federal government in the form of section 8 housing vouchers. Fixing stuff would just cut into their profits
– so they don’t do that. But… Bethel is downtown – it’s right next to
Hotel Indigo. This land is valuable. There’s a luxury apartment complex just
waiting to be built there to join the rest of its friends. This is a substantial, highly-visible piece
of property, and quite frankly if we and the Athens Housing Authority hadn’t gotten our
hands on it, it would have gone to a private developer and you might have the Mark 2 there. That would cause the displacement of hundreds
of low-income people. Where would they go? The mayor and commission couldn’t let that
happen. So they hatched a plan to rescue Bethel from
the vultures. We’re rescuing affordable housing here. We’re not only making it better, we’re
rescuing it from a fate it was well into. The commission, the Athens Housing Authority,
Columbia Residential and Jonathan Rose Companies have decided to work together to save Bethel,
to improve it, and to build upon it. It’s called the “North Athens Project,”
and the most important thing to know about it is that it’s not even close to being
finalized yet. We want to be totally honest, totally transparent. We’re going to have many, many, many, many
meetings – dozens and dozens of meetings. We’re going to stay engaged and we’re
going to try very hard never to make a promise we can’t keep. That’s how you win trust. That’s how you win trust with the residents,
that’s how you win trust with the public. With all these meetings, the current residents
of Bethel will have lots of input into what the final plan looks like. And they’re all guaranteed the right to
return after re-development is finished… literally guaranteed by law and by the contract
they have with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Every penny of all the costs to move, all
the connection fees, everything associated with the move will be completely borne by
us. No resident will be out a dime for the move
away or the move back. Their rents won’t go up after they move
back either – that’s written into their current lease. The North Athens Project might actually double
the number of subsidized apartments in this area. It might even increase the number of truly
affordable units. This huge investment in affordable housing
for Athens will be paid for, in part, out of SPLOST 2020. There’s $44 and a half million dollars on
the SPLOST project list right now. $39 million of that will go towards this project
and be leveraged through the Housing Authority into $300 million. That’s enough to re-build Bethel and maybe
also to help renovate or build additional units on the Housing Authority property that’s
to the north and the local government property to the south. Of course, that relies on SPLOST 2020 bring
approved by voters in November. If SPLOST fails, then this project will be
greatly limited, and would end up being just a renovation of Bethel. I do understand people’s concerns about
projects like this. Who knows that Bethel Homes is the result
of urban renewal from the 60s? That it was the intentional displacement of
174 black families and then they were pushed into housing. And now we have Bethel, 60 years later. It’s a mess that this institution created. It’s important that we stay engaged as it
continues to roll out. But I also think it’s important that we’re
able to believe that government is actually capable of doing good things. If we stop believing that… well… I hope you like luxury apartment complexes. I’ll see you on the next one.