As I mentioned in the section of this website on Rental Housing safety, every year the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Athens County as having the absolute worst housing problems in the entire state of Ohio — and by a longshot — due to the unusually high costs and unusually low quality of our local housing stock, and coupled with the fact that Athens County also has the highest income inequality in all of Ohio and some of the worst poverty. And unfortunately, Athens City Council’s record on promoting affordable housing is no better than its record on promoting rental housing safety.
Incumbent councilmember Sarah Grace chairs Council’s Affordable Housing Commission. Like many voters, I assumed the purpose of Grace’s commission was to make housing more affordable for the majority of local residents, who currently pay more than 30% of their annual incomes on housing. (Among renters, the situation is even worse, with 55% of Athens County renters paying more than 35% of their annual household incomes on housing costs.)
But instead of Grace’s Affordable Housing Commission living up to its name, Grace’s commission got the rest of Council to agree to help a private developer build new quarter-million dollar homes that are significantly more expensive as our city’s current median home sale price.
Back in February, City Planner Logue told Council that, were it not for the city publicly subsidizing through tax breaks this development at University Estates, the homes in question would sell for more like $400,000. So the city is subsidizing this development to help people who can afford quarter-million dollar homes actually get $400,000 homes at nearly half price.
And the deal’s proponents say this will entice wealthier people to move here.
So it’s a classic gentrification scheme that councilmember Grace, as chair of Council’s Affordable Housing Commission, and councilmember Fahl, as another Commission member, had the audacity to mislable an affordable housing initiative.
The ordinance approving the deal literally calls it “an affordable housing development.” And Fahl and Grace spoke of it as “affordable housing” over and over again, for more than a year, until this February, when councilmember Clodfelter was quoted in the Athens News saying that Grace and Fahl would “get laughed out of the room” if they kept calling it that.
So at that point Grace dropped the original cover story. She told the Athens News in May that no one had ever called this “affordable housing,” when in reality even the ordinance approving the deal called it “affordable housing.” And now Grace tells us the development is really all about “sustainable housing” (despite the carbon costs of new construction) and all about providing housing that’s accessible to people with disabilities (despite the homes in question being two-story townhomes).
And Grace and Fahl even used the short-lived lumber price bubble earlier this year to get Council to let the developer charge even more for the homes — $20,000 more a piece. A month later the bubble burst, lumber prices fell to below the previous year’s level, and construction hasn’t even started yet. But the developer has an even sweeter deal and the homes are even less affordable.
So every single thing about this deal was an absolute deception. It’s just a giveaway to the developer, a giveaway to wealthy homebuyers, and a textbook gentrification scheme. That’s literally the opposite of an affordable housing initiative.
But Grace’s opposition to affordable housing doesn’t end there.
At a public candidate forum held when Grace was running for Council in 2019, she was asked whether she supported outlawing discrimination by landlords against tenants who receive public assistance (such as HUD vouchers) to pay their rent. Grace replied, in no uncertain terms
“Yes, absolutely. I support a ban on source of income discrimination. In fact, I’ve already brought it up in committee in City Council. This is something that came forward from discussions with members of the Affordable Housing Commission. This is something that we decided. This can happen very quickly and can take effect right away.”
But as soon as Grace was elected she dropped the issue. She never introduced a ban. She failed to respond to constituents who tagged her on Facebook, asking why she had failed to do so. And at a March 11, 2021 panel discussion on affordable housing hosted by United Athens County Tenants, Grace reversed her position and came out against banning source of income discrimination. (Grace’s ally Chris Fahl, and fellow member of Council’s Affordable Housing Commission, also came out against a SOID ban at the same March 23 candidate forum where Fahl called racial equity work “boring.”)
Thus, following Grace’s 2019 campaign promise to ban source of income discrimination “very quickly” and “right away,” it took nearly two more years of community advocacy –led by me and United Athens County Tenants, and supported by My Sister’s Place, Southeast Ohio Habitat for Humanity, Ohio Poverty Law Center, Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program, Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, The Southeast Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, The Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, and the Appalachian Peace and Justice Network– before another Council member, Arian Smedley, finally formally proposed Council ban SOID, and for Grace and Fahl to finally succumb to public pressure and join the rest of Council in voting for the ban.
However, Grace’s broken 2019 campaign promise, which delayed implementation of this policy for nearly two years, caused many local low-income tenants to suffer unnecessary hardship. Among them were dozens of former Prokos tenants who lost their homes in the middle of last winter’s holiday season and the peak of a deadly global pandemic, after they could no longer use their vouchers at Prokos properties.
Finally, as chair of Council’s Affordable Housing Commission, Grace has done nothing to strengthen enforcement of our city’s housing code in the rental properties nearly 80% of Athenians call home — even after the city’s negligent approach to code enforcement cost 41 tenants their homes and nearly their lives in the Carriage Hill (now Campus Heights) Apartments Fire of 2017.
Currently the subject of a class action lawsuit against the landlord, the 2017 Carriage Hill/Campus Heights Apartments Fire resulted nearly one month after city inspectors cited the landlord for multiple faulty smoke detectors and at least one expired fire extinguisher. But despite city officials knowing about these unsafe conditions for nearly a month before the fire, inspectors never returned to see if the violations had been corrected.
Yet in all of Grace’s 4 years on Council (which began the year of the Carriage Hill/Campus Heights Apartment Fire), never once has she worked to increase the city Code Enforcement office’s capacity to enforce safety regulations in an adequate and timely manner.
And it was only under pressure from my 2019 mayoral campaign, which I focused on rental housing justice issues, that Grace join the rest of Council in voting to increase penalties for repeat offender landlords.
In a city overwhelmingly comprised of student and working class renters, where families trying to buy homes of their own continue to be priced out of the local market, we need a strong housing justice advocate on Council — and no candidate in the race has a stronger record of housing justice advocacy than me.
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