Housing crisis

‘So much has changed’: Activists say UGA and local government are inflaming housing crisis | City News

Editor’s note: This story is part two of a three-part series on the housing crisis in Athens. The series explores who is affected, how the crisis happened, and what the community and local government have done to mitigate the impact. The first part is here.

Kathryn Titus tried to save for a house for her family. She moved into her apartment in Highland Park on the east side of Athens in 2020 with her daughter and three of her grandchildren. Her daughter saved every paycheck she earned to pay a down payment on a house.

Titus and his family can no longer stay in their apartment. He was told that his lease of $1,100 a month would not be renewed at the end of the year. Even if it was, the resort now charges an extra $600 per month for units like its.

“They have so seriously disrupted our lives,” Titus said. She and her family move to another county at the end of the year. For now, her dreams of buying a house have been put on hold.

Titus and his family cannot afford to live in Athens-Clarke County and they are not alone. Properties are becoming increasingly unaffordable and low-income families are trapped in a state of uncertainty.

Activists say the affordability is exacerbated by the University of Georgia, where the student population continues to grow, and also by the lack of state or local laws to protect tenants. Community members want the university and local government to do more.

Too few hostels, too many students

Eight years ago, Broderick Flanigan rented a two-bedroom apartment for less than $600 a month. Today, the average rent for a home of this size is just over $1,500. Flanigan is a community activist and he sees a disturbing trend.

“That section of people who are at the bottom, who are trapped in this low-wage life or in a low-income situation that they are constantly in situations of flux or uncertainty,” Flanigan said.

There isn’t just one reason why it’s harder to buy or rent. The investor buys, a national housing shortage, an increase in population and other factors are all contributing. Over the past 20 years, the population of Athens has grown by approximately 27,000 people. And UGA, one of the things Athens is best known for, is also driving up house prices, community members say.

Since 2018, the number of accepted students has been increasing every year, and these students are in need of accommodation. Housing everyone on campus is not an option, since UGA has more than 40,000 students and just over 9,000 beds, according to university spokesman Greg Trevor. The lack of on-campus housing has opened up the possibility of building high-rise apartment complexes, especially concentrated downtown.

“Being here for 12 years, I’ve seen so much development. So much has changed in such a short time,” said Mokah Jasmine Johnson, who recently ran for seat 120 of the State House. “It’s student-driven.

UGA offered upper classes living on campus up to $3,500 to cancel their housing contracts and live off-campus to open up rooms to freshmen, who are required to live in dorms unless they have an exemption.

“We give them time to find another place to go, but the truth is that in Athens right now there is no affordable housing.”

— Terrell Moore, Project Coordinator at The Ark

Trevor said the university is “investigating the possibility of adding more on-campus housing in the future.”

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said apartment complexes have kept pace with student growth and fewer students are renting homes that could be bought by Athenians.

“You go back to 2000, 2002, there was a lot of angst in this community about students renting in neighborhoods,” Girtz said. “It’s not like it’s completely gone, but it’s a lot lighter than 20 years ago.”

As the university grows, Girtz wants housing supply to exceed demand so that fewer students end up in the neighborhoods.

Dorm beds at the University of Georgia have not kept up with the growth of its student population. Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said private apartment buildings have kept pace with university enrollment and filled the void. (Graphic/Jacqueline GaNun)

Flanigan doesn’t blame students for needing housing, but said UGA isn’t doing enough to mitigate what he thinks is a detrimental impact on the people of Athens. The university is not required to pay taxes on its more than 4,000 acres of land in Clarke County. Flanigan suggested that UGA contribute to a fund to alleviate the housing crisis instead of taxes.

Girtz isn’t optimistic about it.

“While I would say it would be a great idea, I know it’s not going to happen,” Girtz said. “But at least we generate a lot of tax revenue from places like The Mark and The Standard,” which are off-campus private apartment complexes.

Johnson and Flanigan said UGA staff salaries keep residents who work for the university in cyclical poverty. UGA is one of the county’s largest employers with about 10,400 people on full-time staff and faculty as of fall 2021. Johnson said the university providing jobs is beneficial but the $15.14 per hour the minimum wage for staff is not enough. Trevor said staff receive benefits of up to an additional 80% of their base salary, or $31,500 per year.

In 2021, UGA experienced its highest number of enrollments and in 2022, largest freshman class. As the number of admitted students increases every year, developers are racing to build more accommodation, but many are more interested in attracting students than locals. Only 40% of homes in Clarke County are owner occupiedaccording to US census data.

Frustrations of reaching funds

Barbara Daniel struggles to find a place to live after a new management company buys her apartment complex. She moved in with a friend at the end of August.

In October, Daniel contacted The Ark, a non-profit organization that provides financial assistance to low-income people. Daniel sought funding to pay for a storage unit and help with the bills for the person she is staying with. She said that as of November 6, she had had none.

“It gets very frustrating,” Daniel said.

Investor purchases endanger affordable housing in Athens

Girtz said government housing assistance funding is channeled through state agencies and nonprofits. Johnson said the process for getting help needs to be streamlined.

“People shouldn’t be homeless because of paperwork,” Johnson said.

Terrell Moore, program coordinator at The Ark, said obtaining government funding took longer than expected, which delayed the speed with which it was available. L’Arche is efficient in distributing aid due to its established procedures, which can be a source of frustration for those in need of immediate assistance.

Moore said it’s important people know what they need to bring to qualify, including proof of rent increase and income level. Some who came to L’Arche were not qualified for help.

“It’s really hard to have to tell people facing deportation that there’s nothing we can do because of the policies we have in place,” Moore said.

The large number of people needing help has also been difficult. L’Arche has three staff members and a telephone line. Moore said so far they don’t need more than one and the influx is concerning. She is afraid of what the future holds for her.

“We give them time to find another place to go, but the truth is that in Athens right now there is no affordable housing, so these people won’t be able to find another place,” said Moore.

Johnson also wants to see local government advocate for state-level rent control legislation.

Georgia is one of 26 states which prohibits rent control, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council. Once a lease is in place, landlords can charge whatever price they think the market will bear. Other states have rent control laws, but Girtz said it’s unlikely to pass in Georgia.

“I think you would be involved in some magical thinking if you think the Georgia General Assembly is going to approve rent control,” Girtz said.

Girtz said he has asked federal and state authorities to enact source-of-income legislation, which prohibits discrimination against tenants who use federal housing bonds. He sees the state providing money for infrastructure such as water and sewer and the federal government allocating more tax credits for low-income housing as essential to solving housing problems. Tax credits encourage the construction and rehabilitation of rental housing for low-income people.

Flanigan wants to see more support for people facing impending crisis, a number he says will only grow.

“We need to do something as a society, as a community, as a whole and really hug our arms around these residents who are affected and try to find long-term sustainable solutions,” Flanigan said. “Right now I feel like we’re just putting band-aids on a lot of things, and that’s not going to be enough.”