Affordable housing: Lots of talk, little action under the Gold Dome  

A scene from the Senate at the end of the 2023 General Assembly, which saw lots of talk about affordable housing but little action. (Photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – Despite agreement among lawmakers and advocates that Georgia needs more quality affordable housing, the General Assembly this year took few steps to address the shortfall.  

Most of the bills aimed at housing problems failed to pass, foundering on the shoals of inter-chamber disagreements and controversy about the extent to which the state government can limit local housing regulations.  

House Bill 514, the “Housing Regulation Transparency Act,” sponsored by state Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, would have prohibited local governments from extending moratoriums on building new housing beyond 180 days, with some limited exceptions.  

The Senate version of the bill – which passed on the last day of the legislative session – would have prohibited extended local moratoriums on both single- and multi-family housing.  

But the House disagreed with the Senate version, pushing the bill to a last-minute conference committee. With just hours left on the legislative clock, there simply wasn’t enough time to hammer out the differences. 

Washburn said he is optimistic the bill will pass next year, the second year of the current two-year legislative term.  

“I’m trying to make it easy to develop and to build housing for Georgians, whether it’s multifamily or single family,” said Washburn, a veteran real-estate agent.  

Local government advocates – mainly represented by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) and the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) – did not oppose HB 514. 

But they balked at another bill Washburn proposed that would have prohibited local governments from regulating a long list of housing design elements, from roof design to building materials to minimum lot sizes.

Washburn said local regulations drive up housing costs that are then passed on to consumers. But House Bill 517 stalled in a House committee. 

So, too, did a proposal from Rep. Spencer Frye, D-Athens. His House Bill 490 took aim at large institutional investors who are snapping up single-family homes.  

It would have eliminated a tax benefit allowing rental-property owners to reduce their tax liability by about 3.6% of the cost of the rental property annually. The bill never got a committee vote.  

One measure aimed at predatory real-estate practices did cross the legislative finish line and is now awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.  

Senate Bill 90 would bar a deceptive real-estate practice pioneered by MV Realty, a Florida company operating in many states.  

The company pays homeowners – often seniors on fixed incomes — a small sum of money (usually $500 to $1000) to sign on to a 40-year commitment to use MV Realty if they ever decide to sell their house – or face a stiff financial penalty.  

Lawyers for Atlanta Legal Aid have been battling the practice in court, addressing each case individually. The new Georgia law would make the agreements void from the start.   

“We’re really glad that the legislature decided to address what we see as a really serious problem for our clients,” said Dina Franch, a staff attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid.  

Another small bright spot is a budget line proposed by Kemp and approved by the legislature that sets aside $35.7 million to create a Rural Workforce Housing Fund within the state Department of Community Affairs. The agency is still hammering out the details of how those funds will be spent, said spokesperson Ryan Evans.   

A tenants’ rights bill aimed at protections for renters, the “Safe at Home Act” sponsored by Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, failed to get a Senate vote despite unanimous approval in the House.  

Under Carpenter’s bill, Georgia rental agreements would have to include a provision “that the premises is fit for human habitation,” as is already standard in most other states.  

It also would have required landlords to ensure air conditioning remains on during eviction proceedings and prohibited landlords from charging more than two months’ rent as a security deposit. Finally, the bill would have provided tenants with three days to pay past-due rent or fees before landlords could start eviction proceedings.  

“Families are going to have to live in unsafe housing that is not fit for human beings to live in for at least another year,” said Elizabeth Appley, an attorney and housing advocate who supported the measure.  

A separate set of bills took aim at Georgia’s homelessness problem.  

House Bill 520 was a follow-up to last year’s landmark mental health reform package. One focus was helping so-called “familiar faces” — people who cycle between criminal justice, homeless and behavioral health systems.  

The bill would have created a task force dedicated to finding better ways to coordinate services for homeless people facing mental health challenges. It also would have required the Department of Community Affairs to increase supportive housing for the familiar faces population. 

Despite passing unanimously on the House floor, the mental-health measure failed to get Senate committee approval.  

A bill sponsored by Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, took a more narrow approach to homelessness in Georgia and gained approval from the Republican-controlled House and Senate.  

Senate Bill 62 would stop local governments from adopting regulations prohibiting the enforcement of rules against unauthorized public camping and sleeping. It also prohibits hospitals and local governments from dropping off homeless people outside of their jurisdictions and requires the state auditor to conduct an audit of spending on homelessness in Georgia.  

Senate Democrats and advocates for local governments opposed the measure.  

“[The bill] turns the screws on local governments to try to solve a problem that is so layered multifaceted and complex,” said Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs.  

“We would have preferred the state to provide more tools and resources to Georgia cities to help them address the needs of homeless and unsheltered residents in their communities,” said Jim Thornton of the GMA. 

“Instead, SB 62 provides additional unnecessary restrictions on local governments, but the legislation should not impede the good work that cities across the state are already doing to address homelessness.”  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia class of 2022 ranked 15th in nation for Advanced Placement pass rates

ATLANTA – More than one-fifth of Georgia’s public high school graduates earned passing scores on at least one Advanced Placement examination, putting the state in 15th place nationally, according to new data out this week.  

The AP program allows students to take college-equivalent courses while still in high school. Each course is assessed by an examination graded on a 1 to 5 scale. Students who score 3 or higher on the exams are typically eligible for college credit for the course.  

Last year, 21.2% of Georgia students who took the tests scored a 3 or higher, putting Georgia just below the national average of 21.6%.  

Georgia students and their families could save around $91 million on college costs because the scores allow students to get college credits for courses taken in high school, according to the College Board, which administers the program.

“What an accomplishment for these hardworking students and their teachers and families,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said. “As a state, we will continue to pursue excellence and strive to open doors to opportunity for every student who enters our public schools.” 

Even if students earn scores too low to qualify for college credit (typically a score of 1 or 2), there are benefits to taking the AP courses and exams, the College Board says. Those who initially earn lower scores often go on to take other AP exams and earn higher scores. And even those students who earn a score of 2 on the exam perform as well or better than others in introductory college courses.  

Students can choose to take AP courses in a wide variety of topics, from Latin to music theory to advanced physics.  

Among 2022 public school graduates in Georgia, humanities and social science exams were the most popular, with close to 15,000 Peach State grads taking the English language and composition exam and 14,612 taking the United States history exam.  

Around 7,200 Georgia public school graduates took the environmental science exam, 6,512 took the biology exam, and 6,700 took the statistics exam. The AP also offers two computer science exams, and close to 4,000 Georgia grads took a course focused on principles of computer science, with another 2,200 taking an exam specifically focused on programming.   

Spanish was by far the most popular foreign-language exam, with close to 2,500 graduating seniors taking the language exam and another 161 taking the Spanish literature exam. French was the next most popular among foreign languages, with 376 public school graduates taking the exam.  

German, Latin, and Chinese all had fewer than 200 test-takers. Just 12 members of the class of 2022 took the Japanese exam and only one took the Italian exam.  

Overall, slightly fewer Georgia students are taking AP exams than they did 10 years ago. Last year, 33.9% of Peach State graduates took at least one exam, down from about 37% in 2012. Nationally, more students are taking the exams than they did a decade ago.  

There are also racial disparities among the students who take the exams. About 38% of white Georgia public school graduates and 34% of Hispanic or Latino graduates took an exam during high school, while only 20% of Black Georgia graduates did so. Among Asian Georgia grads, 74% took at least one exam, according to data from the College Board.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Doctors worry about accidents as Georgia seniors face delays getting routine cataract surgeries  

Georgia seniors Peggy Mitchell, left, and Gwen Brightman, right, both had to delay their scheduled cataract removal surgeries due to insurance challenges.

ATLANTA – Peggy Mitchell, 71, was having trouble driving at night, so she knew she could not wait any longer to have the cataract clouding her right eye removed.

The lively Alpharetta resident had scheduled her surgery for Nov. 22, before Thanksgiving, and arranged for a friend to drive her to the surgery and back home. She had already had a cataract on her left eye removed the prior year without a hitch. 

But her carefully laid plans ground to a halt at the last minute when her Medicare Advantage insurer, Aetna, denied approval for the routine, vision-saving surgery most older adults need at some point. 

Mitchell and her doctor appealed the denial but did not receive a response in time, forcing Mitchell to postpone the procedure for more than a month, until after Christmas. Mitchell’s ophthalmologist, Dr. Susanne Hewitt of North Fulton Eye Center, came into the office during her holiday vacation to perform the surgery for Mitchell and others.

What’s unusual about this situation is that Aetna Medicare Advantage requires prior approvals for cataract surgery only in Georgia and Florida – not in any other states. Aetna Medicare Advantage plans covered 132,414 Georgians in 2022, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). 

Humana instituted a similar policy—only in Georgia—last fall. Humana Medicare Advantage plans covered 264,010 Georgians last year, according to KFF. 

In contrast to the insurers’ Georgia policies requiring approvals, traditional Medicare – not run by insurance companies — does not require prior authorizations for most procedures, including cataract surgery.  

Ophthalmologists and patients say Aetna and Humana’s policies delay care, put Georgia seniors at risk, and create burdensome administrative requirements, only for the surgeries to be approved in the end.  

“What happened in that one month would be my question,” Mitchell said. “All that frustration and denial … I can’t tell you how it felt.” 

As a self-described “healthy senior,” Mitchell had rarely used her Aetna health insurance and always paid her monthly premium. She was so certain her surgery would be approved that she started taking the expensive eyedrops needed to prepare. That proved a waste when Aetna did not approve her surgery for the originally scheduled date.

“I don’t know why me,” Mitchell told Capitol Beat. 

The answer to Mitchell’s question appears to lie in the contractual relationship between Aetna and iCare Health Solutions

Back in 2021, Aetna began requiring prior authorizations for cataract surgery across the country. But after an outcry from ophthalmologists, Aetna reversed the policy last year – except for in Georgia and Florida. 

“Aetna has been engaged in a 10-year relationship with iCare Health Solutions to manage ophthalmology and optometry services in Florida,” Aetna spokeswoman Kimberly Eafano said. “Almost two years ago, Aetna expanded this arrangement to include the state of Georgia, where iCare also has a community presence.”

Humana instituted a similar policy for its Medicare Advantage enrollees – only in Georgia – last fall. Humana said the unique Georgia policy is due to its relationship with iCare. 

iCare did not comment despite multiple requests. 

Georgia doctors are worried the delays put patient safety at risk. 

“Any type of delay – even a few weeks or a couple of months – that’s usually a safety issue,” said Hewitt, Mitchell’s ophthalmologist. Many patients put off seeking treatment for cataracts because surgery, even a routine one like cataract removal, can be scary. 

“I have patients that say they can’t see to drive on the road,” Hewitt said. “[They] follow the car in front of them. If that car turns and they’re not turning that way, they’re really in trouble because they can’t follow them anymore.”

“If you have a patient who comes in as having a stated problem, and it’s backed up by the examination, then we should act on that. We shouldn’t be telling them no, just for the sake of saying no.” 

Dr. Chandler Berg, an Albany-era ophthalmologist and president of the Georgia Society of Ophthalmology, echoed Hewitt’s concerns.  

“Aetna’s policies have not improved and continue to limit patient access to surgical care,” Berg said. “I encourage patients with Aetna to switch to a different Medicare plan.” 

The problem has drawn the attention of the state’s congressional delegation.  

“These policies put Georgia [Medicare Advantage] patients at greater risk of falls and accidents as their vision continues to deteriorate while they wait for surgery,” the state’s Democratic representatives, led by Atlanta’s Rep. David Scott, wrote to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the federal health-care regulator, last December. 

“Georgia [Medicare Advantage] beneficiaries have faithfully paid premiums every month,’’ they wrote. “They deserve the same access to sight-restoring surgery that Aetna and Humana … beneficiaries have in other states.” 

Five Republican representatives led by Rep. Buddy Carter of Savannah wrote a similar letter.

“Aetna’s and Humana’s prior authorization policies create obstacles to this common surgery for both patients and their physicians,” the GOP congressmen wrote. 

But neither Carter nor Scott has received a response from CMS, their spokespeople said. 

“CMS is committed to ensuring that people with Medicare Advantage have timely access to medically necessary care,” a CMS spokesperson said in response to a query about the Georgia situation. 

A proposed regulatory change that could take effect in 2024 would require Medicare Advantage plans to ensure that “people with Medicare Advantage receive the same access to medically necessary care they would receive in traditional Medicare.” 

Meanwhile, the problems in Georgia continue. Gwen Brightman, a 67-year-old Aetna Medicare Advantage customer from Newnan, was forced to delay her surgery from Feb. 9 to Feb. 23  because the company did not provide her with timely approval. 

Even the delayed surgery was approved at the last minute, said Brightman, who has a full-time job.  

“I spent approximately two hours on the phone desperately trying to make the deadline and didn’t get the approval until the late afternoon [the day before],” she said. “This caused me extreme and unnecessary stress. Between the strain on my eye and the never-ending requests and requirements, I was a wreck. No one else should have to experience this nonsense.” 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Public asked to weigh in on new English and language arts standards for Georgia 

ATLANTA – The state Board of Education has posted a new set of English and language arts (ELA) standards and asked the public to weigh in by May 1.   

The public comment period is the next step in a lengthy process of revising the state’s standards for ELA education across all grade levels.  

“Truly, the documents that you have before you represent the collective voice, the collective work, the collective expertise of educators in Georgia,” said April Aldridge, deputy superintendent of teaching and learning at the Georgia Department of Education, during a board meeting last week.  

“One of the things that we really knew the public said we needed to work on was clarifying language … making sure that the terminology was consistent.”

One major change is the introduction of a new category of standards – called “foundations” – for kindergarten through 5th grade. These standards are designed to ensure Georgia students develop strong literacy skills in the early grades and include a focus on phonics skills. The General Assembly passed legislation last week also aimed at bolstering early literacy in Georgia.  

The other standards are divided across three domains: language, practices and texts.  

The “practices” category has been redesigned to stretch across K-12 rather than being grade-specific.  

The practices standards specify that students will develop their identities as readers and writers and learn to interpret written materials in context. One standard specifies that students should read like a writer, while another specifies that students should write like a reader – meaning they should learn to “construct texts with the audience’s experience in mind.”  

The texts standards do not specify which books students should read but rather the expectations for how they learn to engage with and interpret books and other written materials.  The language category focuses on grammar and vocabulary.  

The standards were created by a working group of 300 educators from across the state. A Citizens Review Committee made up of parents, students and business leaders and an Academic Review Committee that included experts also provided input.  

An earlier draft of the standards was posted last November. More than 14,000 Georgians have already provided feedback on the new standards, according to the department. 

If adopted, the new English and language arts standards would be implemented in the 2025-2026 school year.  

Members of the public can view and comment on the draft standards via a website and survey the Department of Education has established ( The comment period will close on May 1.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Teacher planning period bill passes  

Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, sponsored a successful bill guaranteeing teachers a daily planning period.

ATLANTA – The General Assembly has approved a bill guaranteeing Georgia public school teachers a daily planning period to use for lesson planning, grading and other tasks.  

The new measure will apply to those who teach kindergarten to 12th grade and is aimed at addressing teacher burnout.  

 “For teachers, our number one job is providing appropriate instruction for our students and, in order to provide that instruction, planning time is of utmost importance,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. 

Morgan said teachers need time not only to develop lesson plans but to analyze assessment data to determine where students need additional support.  

“That type of planning takes time,” she said. “The fact that it’s now going to be in state law that planning time is guaranteed — that’s very important.”  

A state Department of Education report published last year recommended guaranteed planning periods as one measure that could help address teacher burnout.  

“The teachers I know don’t want to walk away … but too many teachers I know are running on empty,” Cherie Bonder Goldman, the 2022 Georgia teacher of the year, wrote at the start of the report.  

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, and carried in the Senate by Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas.  

The measure picked up several additional amendments during the legislative process. One would set a sunset date at the end of 2026 for a tax credit for donations for the purpose of providing grants to public schools.  

Another amendment specifies that local school board members cannot discuss any individual personnel matter with the district superintendent or other school personnel unless authorized by law.  

A third amendment outlines the rights of appeal for a public school or school system wishing to dispute the findings of an accrediting agency.  

The bill received final passage in the Senate Wednesday on a 48-4 vote. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.