Type to search

DeKalb delegation holds town hall ahead of 2023 legislative session

DeKalb County Trending

DeKalb delegation holds town hall ahead of 2023 legislative session

Georgia State Capitol. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated. 

DeKalb County, GA — The DeKalb legislative delegation held a town hall on Jan. 7 to hear public concerns before the 2023 Georgia legislative session begins on Jan. 9.

The event was attended by Rep. Karla Drenner (D – Avondale Estates) Sen. Emanuel Jones (D – Senate District 10), Sen. Elena Parent (D – Senate District 42), Rep-elect Omari Crawford (D – Decatur), Rep. Karen Bennett (D – Stone Mountain), Rep. Doreen Carter (D – Lithonia), Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D – Decatur), Rep. Viola Davis (D – Stone Mountain), Rep-elect Long Tran (D – Dunwoody), and Rep. Becky Evans (D – Atlanta).

Comments from attendees were mainly focused on housing and education issues. Other concerns included the criminal justice system, urban farming, and the cityhood movement. 

Chris Griffin, a cityhood advocate, said that corporate real estate investors were raising housing prices and putting economic pressure on homeowners: “My property taxes have gone up 90% over the last four years, because of institutional investor activity in my neighborhood. Our elected representatives are the only ones who can deliver legislation to control that.” 

Sandy Johnson, a realtor, said that it took her a year to find a house for a nurse with good credit because investors would outbid her, even when she offered $30,000 over the asking price.

Corporate investment in housing causes rents to rise. Joel Thibodeaux, who works for the DeKalb County School District, said that one of the knock-on effects is that more children struggle in schools because they move around so much that it’s difficult for school staff to form the kind of relationships with them that would allow them to have more impact.

“We have companies that own 50,000 homes,” said Thibodeaux.

He suggested that if lawmakers found it difficult to curb institutional investors directly, perhaps strengthening the laws protecting renters would be useful.

“Do more to make them responsible landlords,” said Thibodeaux.

Sen. Jones responded, “What do you consider responsible?” He went on to say that corporate investors frequently charge renters a maintenance fee over and above normal rent. Jones also said that those investors frequently go to communities that are underserved like Stockbridge and south DeKalb.

“Institutional investors are taking over whole communities,” Jones added.

Several legislators agreed with commenters. Oliver said that 38% of housing was being bought by investors.

“In south DeKalb, it’s 58%” said Johnson. 

Johnson expressed opposition to companies that rent single rooms like PadSplit and advocated for housing covenants in communities. However, Carter pointed out that in the midst of Atlanta’s housing crisis, the bigger picture should be considered.

“Don’t miss that some of the people who are living in PadSplit would otherwise be living on the street. Let’s have a comprehensive housing conversation,” said  Rep. Carter.

Rep. Evans said, “Affordable housing is a crisis. Even the Georgia Chamber of Commerce said that housing is a crisis, so I feel like everyone recognizes that.”

“Housing is a top priority during this session,” said Rep. Davis.

Griffin and Johnson, two speakers at the meeting, advocated cityhood as a solution to the problem of institutional investors, saying that cities would be able to regulate their activities more effectively. April Thomas and Kevin Alexander, who are co-chairs of the DeKalb cityhood movement, advocated for cities as an opportunity for self-government and pushed for DeKalb residents to be allowed to vote on cityhood.

Claudette Leaks from DeKalb United said, “Vote on what? I haven’t seen your charter.”

Leaks said that the last feasibility study for a city in south DeKalb was done in 2014, and she felt that being seven years old made it out of date. Leaks said that there are legitimate reasons why people want a city, but cautioned that charters become laws.

“It’s not like forming a business,” said Leaks, adding,  “I’m not going to vote [on a city] without a charter.”

Carter said that a clear charter was necessary, and the previous charter was flawed. “Creating a new one is the place to start,” said Carter.

Other legislators suggested alternatives to a binding referendum that would immediately form a new city. 

Rep. Davis said that when she was first elected, she proposed a non-binding referendum so that people could vote precinct by precinct whether they did or did not want to be in a city.

“I was attacked for that,” said Davis.

Rep. Davis said that because of potential financial benefits, cityhood proponents often have strong financial backing. Opponents must educate about 300,000 people about their position without that kind of financial support. 

Sen. Jones encouraged cityhood proponents to investigate other ways to address their concerns. “There are other forms of government that have worked well, including consolidated governments,” said Sen. Jones.

Jocelyn O’Neil spoke during the town hall about gang violence intervention and the importance of education for those returning to society after serving a sentence.

“There’s an overpopulated program for continuing education, and many inmates don’t get a chance to finish before they are released,” said O’Neil. She added that technical programs such as at Piedmont Technical College require a high school GPA to enter, and many don’t have high school diplomas.

Lance Hammonds, who is president of the DeKalb NAACPand Rockbridge Coalition, said that his organization received many calls about people afraid of losing their homes, criminal justice, and from people in jail or with loved ones in jail.

“Being in jail does not mean that you’ve been convicted. We’re concerned about the safety of the people in the jail. One of our members lost a son who was in the Gwinnett County jail,” said Hammonds.

Hammonds said that the DeKalb NAACP is also concerned with re-entry for those who are incarcerated. The regional probation office is in Conyers which makes it very difficult to reach for people in DeKalb who don’t have a car and may not have money for frequent cab rides.

Andrew Bell said that he would like to see free trade schools because professions like carpentry, electric, and plumbing pay well, and it would be beneficial to get students interested in them early.

“We need positive activities for kids. We’re letting the gangs come up with the activities,” said Bell.

“We’re very aware of that,” said Rep. Evans, adding that workforce development was a priority. Evans said that some programs were already available: “There are fourteen career pathways where students can get a free education.”

Jones pointed out that new career training opportunities were opening up in south DeKalb.

”Georgia Piedmont Technical College is building the largest logistical center in the southeastern United States, over in the Stonecrest area,” said Jones.

Terry Ali is an urban farmer who goes into schools to educate children about where their food comes from.

“We’re in Georgia, y’all. But we have children living in Georgia who don’t know anything about growing food,” Ali said.

Ali pointed out that farming is part of workforce development, and said that more could be done to secure grants to help urban and suburban farming programs.

“There’s money coming, but none of it is coming into DeKalb County,” said Ali.

If you appreciate our work on this story, please become a paying supporter. For as little as $6 a month, you can help us keep you in the loop about your community. To become a supporter, click here

Want Decaturish delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our free newsletter by clicking here

Decaturish is now on Mastadon. To follow us, visit: https://newsie.social/@Decaturish/.

Decaturish is now on Post. To follow us, visit: https://post.news/decaturish.

Decaturish is now on Flipboard. To follow us, visit: https://flipboard.com/@Decaturish