Editor’s note: This story is part three of a three-part series on the housing crisis in Athens. The series explores who is impacted, how the crisis happened and what the community and local government have done to mitigate the impact. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.
Lakita Banks is desperate to move her children into a better home. She says as much in TikTok videos she posts to spread awareness about poor living conditions at her apartment in Bethel Midtown Village, a project-based Section 8 neighborhood off College Avenue.
“I keep trying to be positive, even though there is nothing to be positive about at this point because things has gotten so bad,” Banks said in one of her videos.
Banks is awaiting the development of new buildings in the neighborhood, as promised by the Athens Housing Authority’s north downtown redevelopment project.
As Athens wrestles with an affordable housing crisis, the housing authority and local government are attempting to renovate and expand the number of affordable units. Other organizations, like Athens Area Homeless Shelter, are working with landlords to house residents in the dwindling number of existing affordable units. Both are limited by the scope of their power, resources and most significantly, time. While their plans take shape, many families like Banks’ are left in unhealthy conditions or scrambling for shelter.
AHA Executive Director Rick Parker touts the north downtown Athens redevelopment project as revolutionary.
“It will literally transform all of north downtown Athens. It will allow for the unlocking of the potential of some government-owned property for commercial office and retail space,” Parker said.
AHA plans for the project to take place over the course of 10 years. It will include 700-800 mixed-income units, one-third subsidized through housing choice vouchers, one-third subsidized through Low Income Housing Tax credits and one-third priced at market rate, or comparable to the rent prices of other similar units. In order to achieve this, the organization will need to demolish the existing buildings. Some residents were temporarily relocated to other neighbors like Legacy Mills, Arbor Terrace and Columbia Brookside. Others, like Banks, were relocated to adjacent buildings in Bethel Midtown Village. Six of 16 buildings have been destroyed, but rebuilding has not yet started.
Banks said she has not seen construction in months on the empty lot where her old building once stood.
In the building she was relocated to last November, Banks said her walls have become discolored from mold. She said she complained about the conditions in her apartment to property management, who she said painted over the mold.
“They just painted … they painted over it all,” Banks said.
Tokewia Dillard, a property manager at Bethel Midtown Village, said she was not at liberty to answer questions from The Red & Black.
Columbia Residential, the property management company that oversees Bethel Midtown Village, said “our company has responded promptly to all requests from the tenant and the unit is being inspected on a regular basis both by Columbia staff and representatives of the owner.”
They added that “no evidence of additional leaks or mold have been identified in the unit.”
Parker said the property was in difficult shape when the housing authority purchased it. Since then, Parker said repairs have been done to bring things back up to standard, though he wouldn’t call them renovations.
“We have done a lot of repairs and fixes to the units but I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as renovations,” Parker said. “It would be a tremendous loss to the public if we went in and did top to bottom renovation only to then bulldoze it in a couple years.”
Banks believes her apartment has caused various health problems for her and her family, which she documents in TikToks and Facebook Live videos.
“I don’t know what it is, the only thing I know is it’s been making me and my children sick,” Banks said.
Multiple gaps in the project’s budget have meant a potential stall in construction and limbo for Banks.
If the project cannot secure financing by January 2023, it could lose 9% of its tax credit allocation or an additional $21.9 million in project funding. Additionally, AHA would have to pay $50,000 to some residents who’ve been temporarily relocated during phase one demolition to find permanent new housing, according to Parker.
Athens’ Mayor and Commission held a special-called session on Tuesday to discuss awarding the project $4 million in American Rescue Plan funds, which Parker said should cover the deficit. The motion passed unanimously, though Commissioner Jessie Houle expressed uncertainty about the project’s future.
“We’re still in just phase one … It seems unclear how we get through phases two, three, four and five when there’s no more money really on our end to put toward it [the project],” Houle said during the meeting.
Some affordable units, some not-so affordable
AHA has previously completed similar affordable housing projects in the Athens area like Columbia Brookside. Columbia Brookside was purchased by AHA in 2015 and renovated to create more mixed-income units and add two additional subsidized units to the existing number.
“It’s a much healthier blend to have some balance across the different economic groups within a neighborhood,” Parker said. “When you knock on a door in one of our mixed-income neighborhoods, you have no way of knowing whether you’re knocking on a market rate door, a workforce housing door or a subsidized housing door.”
The apartment complex received affordable housing awards through the Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Awards and the National Association of Home Builders. Parker attributes the project’s successes to its mixed-income model. However, using a mixed-income model that includes full-market rate units does not solve the problem of affordability.
Rent prices in Athens have skyrocketed in recent years, but the amount that federal programs will pay for them has lagged behind. Most apartments are out of reach to those who use housing vouchers to pay rent. The maximum that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will pay for a one-bedroom unit in Athens-Clarke County is $877, but the median rent is now $1,312, according to Zillow.
Closing the gap
Athens Area Homeless Shelter has attempted to bridge the gap between what landlords would like to charge and what voucher recipients are able to pay. The organization offers to pay one year’s worth of a family’s rent, though it will be the family’s name on the lease. The rapid rehousing program allows families to save money and build credit. However, AAHS can only pay for housing that falls at or below the fair market rent.
Landlords, of course, don’t have to charge the fair market rent or accept families assisted by AAHS as tenants. This is where Matt Hargroves steps in. Hargroves, whose official title with AAHS is the Going Home Program coordinator, functions as a liaison between families applying for housing and landlords in the area.
Hargroves said housing is viewed as a commodity and landlords can charge more than the fair market rent for their properties.
“There’s a lot of just trying to get on the good side of landlords. And of course housing is a commodity, it’s not a guaranteed right. We function as a social service agency, landlords are functioning as a business,” Hargroves said.
AAHS also cannot subsidize rents for units receiving HUD tax credits, which makes Columbia Brookside’s new units unavailable to AAHS clientele.
“There’s a very, very small pool of what we can access with rapid rehousing,” Hargroves said.
Hargroves and their colleague, Olivia Amato, are confident in the stability of AAHS’ funding sources. Amato, AAHS’ community engagement coordinator, said the organization is able to continue the program, though there isn’t room in the budget to help everyone.
“We do not take on more families than the funding that we have,” Amato said.
AAHS receives hundreds of phone calls a week from people in need of assistance. They make sure to pick up the phone, although their programs are full.
Hargroves and Amato wouldn’t call AAHS’ work a true solution to the crisis, though it mitigates the impact for the families it’s able to assist. They said real solutions can only be achieved through systemic change.
“No organization can solve homelessness on their own. It has to be a society-wide agreement that we say, ‘We’re done with viewing housing as something that you have to earn,’” Hargroves said.