Julia Jones lived in her modest brick home in Athens, Georgia, for decades, making her mortgage payments and building up a nest egg of equity. But earlier this year, a $900 water bill helped drive her out. Unable to keep up with such sky-high bills, Jones abandoned her house and went to live with her daughter.
The problem, as it turned out, was a leaky pipe between the house and the water meter. The leak was discovered and fixed thanks to a partnership between a local nonprofit, Athens Land Trust, and the Athens-Clarke County government. Today, Jones is back in her home – and the story of how that happened offers important lessons for those who care about a sustainable future.
In 2018, Athens Land Trust and Athens-Clarke County received a grant from the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network to bring resource conservation to West Broad, a low-income, historically African American neighborhood near the University of Georgia. The original plan was to help residents install low-flow showerheads and toilets, “smart” thermostats, insulation and more.
But when the people of West Broad were asked what they needed, low-flow showerheads were not on the list. They had more basic problems to contend with, like the ruinous water bills that put Jones out of her house. Older residents struggled to maintain and keep their homes – and to hold off the developers in this fast-gentrifying neighborhood.
“We came in with a conservation goal,” says Andrew Saunders, director of the Central Services Department for Athens-Clarke County, who worked with Athens Land Trust on the conservation effort. “But we found people were living with major health and safety issues. You have to have a floor before you can talk about insulation.”
It’s a lesson that resonated for the folks at Athens Land Trust. The trust works both to preserve nature and to ensure affordable housing – goals that are sometimes at odds. “When you limit development, it can impact the affordability of the rest of the land,” says Heather Benham, the trust’s executive director. “So it’s important to go into it from the front end planning for both.”
In addition to preserving rural land with conservation easements, the trust purchases and rehabilitates urban properties to keep them affordable in perpetuity. Diversity and inclusion are part of the group’s model: One-third of the trust’s board members are low-income members of the community. And the trust works closely with residents to identify and implement programs that meet local needs. For example, after learning that residents needed home repairs and job opportunities, the trust launched a Young Urban Builders program that fixes up homes while training youth in construction skills.
The Young Urban Builders program is enabling elderly residents to stay in their homes. That includes Willie Thomas, who has lived in the West Broad area since 1957. Thomas’ roof was in danger of collapsing, and he feared the house would be condemned. Retired and living on a fixed income, he lacked the funds for a new roof. “My back was against the wall,” he says.
Then he heard about the trust, and applied for help. “They did an excellent job for me,” Thomas says. Working with a skilled foreman, the young trainees replaced the roof, fixed unsafe steps and replaced a broken water heater. “There is no way I could have stayed here without their help,” he says.
Same for Shirley Tillman, another longtime West Broad resident. Health and mobility problems nearly drove her from her older house, but a few changes – including a walk-in shower with a seat – enabled her to stay. “I would have been in a nursing home,” Tillman says.
To better engage local residents, the trust hired Tawana Mattox, an Athens native. “I grew up in a not-so-fancy part of the community, so I know the people,” Mattox says. That connection was vital to building trust in a place with a long history of marginalization: “I was able to open doors, and bring people to the table,” she adds. “Now they come to community meetings and ask questions and feel good being at the table.”
When Jones suspected a leak was causing her water bills to soar, Mattox was the person she called. Mattox then contacted Saunders at Athens-Clarke County, who created a meter system that monitors water use in real time. He found that Jones’ house was drawing 840 gallons a day – a clear sign of a water leak. And she was not alone: Due to leaky pipes, many homes in West Broad were using five or 10 times more water than average.
Athens Land Trust hired a plumber to fix Jones’ water line, and her usage is now down to 50 gallons a day. Mattox also helped Jones secure a refund from the utility. And the trust is using pooled public and philanthropic funds to repair other leaks in the West Broad neighborhood. Together, the trust and the county government are saving water, saving ratepayers money and reducing shutoffs.
The water savings are substantial. “On Jones’ home alone, we saved as much water as we hoped to save through the entire grant-funded program,” Benham says.
Most importantly, the program helps keep the community intact. “Sustainability and resilience is all about keeping the threads of community tight and strong, and that means keeping neighbors in their homes,” says Meg Jamison, director of the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network.
“When residents are priced out, or are forced to leave by cost burdens, it removes those key threads,” Jamison adds. “The Athens Land Trust is helping to stabilize West Broad, so residents can stay put, maintain their leadership in their community and plan for long-term stability.”
In other words, “sustainability” is not just about conserving resources for future generations. It is about sustaining people, by ensuring living conditions that are healthy and safe. And it is about sustaining communities – the networks of care and concern that will help us face an uncertain future.