United Athens County Tenants hosted a panel Thursday on affordable housing in Athens County, inviting residents to tune in while experts answered questions regarding the issue and potential solutions.
Panelists were from organizations such as Southeast Ohio Legal Services, Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority, Good Works, the Athens Affordable Housing Commission and Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, or HAPCAP.
The program began by diving into causes of the affordable housing issues in Athens County, which, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has the highest percentage of households with severe housing problems in Ohio. Athens County also has the highest percentage of low to middle income households in Ohio, Claire Gysegem, public relations manager at HAPCAP, said.
One commonly cited issue contributing to housing instability was high rental prices for substandard housing units in Athens. That issue has been attributed to the high student population in the city, motivating landlords to drive up rental prices to maximize income, Gysegem said.
Also mentioned was decreased federal housing funding, which places the burden of aid on local governments, Mary Nally, AMHA board member, said. Local zoning and code policies, as well as the capacity to enforce them, also contributes to the struggle for affordable housing, Nally said.
“We must approach both homelessness and housing insecurity as violations of fundamental rights, both solvable, but not as inevitable social problems resulting from personal issues or personal choices,” Nally said.
Panelists were quick to discuss solutions to some of the housing problems facing the county, citing successful initiatives instituted in other states and municipalities.
One solution suggested by Athens City Councilwoman Sarah Grace, D-At Large and member of the Affordable Housing Commission, included forming community land trusts, which would allow nonprofit ownership of land and control of rental properties on it. That would also allow community members in the trust to regulate pricing and rental requirements of properties situated on its land, keeping the units available for lower income Athens residents.
Several other recommendations from Nally included investments in drug treatment, childcare and a fair housing ordinance preventing housing discrimination in Athens.
Currently, two housing developments — including approximately 100 new units with low-income requirements — are being built across from University Estates Boulevard, Grace said.
“I think having 100 new low-income units will make a difference,” Grace said.
Another successful initiative mentioned in the way of housing relief and job creation is YouthBuild, a program aimed at teaching youth and young adults who are not in school or employed construction knowledge. The program allows for skill development, facilitating job mobility, as well as creation of more affordable housing units, Gysegem said.
Panelists unanimously encouraged Athens residents to know their rights and resources and to not be afraid to reach out, including to local officials.
“In terms of the discussion of who should be part of this conversation and who’s responsible for addressing this issue, we all are. All of us,” Gysegem said. “We go to school together, we work together, most of us shop at the same businesses, we travel the same roads, so we have to advocate for each other.”