Affordable housing is vanishing in Athens. Here’s why.

Housing seems to be growing less and less affordable in Athens with rent and home prices going up quickly. Why is that happening?

What does it even mean to say that housing is affordable or not? Watch the video above to find out!

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There is a lot of visual information presented in the video that’s not included in the transcript below, so we recommend watching instead of reading. But, we’ve got the transcript if you prefer to read, as well:

Transcript

Every year, housing seems to be more and more unaffordable in Athens, with rent and home prices going up quickly. Why is that happening? What does it mean to say that housing is affordable or not? And what can we do on a local level to ensure that more people have access to quality housing for a price they feel good about? Let’s find out on this episode of Athens Politics Nerd!

What is affordable housing?

So what is affordable housing? It depends on who’s asking. This, this or even this could all be examples of affordable housing depending on the income of the person living there. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says that housing is considered to be affordable when your rent or mortgage is at most 30% of your total income.

For someone like Jeff Bezos, the Taj Mahal or the Palace of Versailles would both be considered affordable, but for someone out of work with zero income, nothing would be considered affordable.

Because of how related the problem of affordable housing is to the problem of income inequality, some people reject the idea that we have an affordable housing problem in Athens at all. The problem, they say, is the lack of good paying jobs, not housing costs. Are they right?

Well, at some level this is a matter of opinion, but let’s take a closer look. Back in the 80s and 90s, no one was talking about the lack of affordable housing in Athens.

MTV’s Kurt Loder: “REM, Pylon and Love Tractor just to name a few. We wanted to find out more about this musicial hotspot, so we sent our man Tim Sommer down to take a guided tour of Athens with the B-52s themselves.”

Tim Sommer: “Athens, Georgia: red clay, all night parties, loud bands, cheap, cheap rents.”

“Cheap, cheap rents.”

The low cost of living here was actually one of the main draws for musicians and other creative types.

Affordable housing in Athens is harder to find

So, while good paying jobs are definitely important, so is affordable housing. But it’s becoming more and more difficult if not impossible to find those apartments for $250 a month, which used to be fairly common. Wages have gone up since those days, but not by all that much. While the minimum wage has stayed flat since 2009, in recent years the price of an average rental in Athens has gone up by about 18%, or 9% over inflation.

To afford an average studio apartment in Athens in 2014, you had to work full time at $11.85 an hour. If you kept that job, and were fortunate enough to get a 2% raise every year, your apartment would have stayed affordable, but only through 2017. Starting in 2018, you may have felt a squeeze – with your rent growing faster than your income, your apartment is no longer considered “affordable” in 2020.

And that’s for someone working full time at thirteen dollars an hour. Today, half of Athens residents who rent pay more than 30% of their gross income. For people working at $7.25, $8 or $9 dollars an hour, things are even worse. They can’t afford the average apartment, and might have to take a look at low-income housing, such as public housing or section 8, instead.

Low-income housing

Public housing in Athens is run by the Athens Housing Authority. They oversee places like Nellie B, Rocksprings and Broadacres. Rent in public housing is capped at 30% of your income, so it’s affordable by definition. That’s also true for section 8 housing like Bethel Homes or Clarke Gardens. These are privately-owned apartments where the federal government steps in and offers the landlord a subsidy. That ensures no one who lives there pays over 30% of their income in rent. Beyond section 8, some other private apartments are also subsidized, but to a lesser extent. These don’t have guarantees that the apartment would be affordable for everyone, even if rent there is a little lower than market rate.

So there are options available for low-income people, but still, they don’t solve the problem of affordable housing. The subsidized apartments are not affordable for everyone, and there are long waiting lists for public and section 8 housing. I’ve been talking about the rental market, but many homeowners have also been feeling the pinch. Property values have been skyrocketing in recent years, causing homeowners to pay higher and higher property taxes.

Why is affordable housing vanishing?

While there are many contributing factors, the first reason why homes and apartments are becoming more expensive is because real estate here is limited while our population has grown. Also – poverty has been increasing at the same time. So there’s a bigger demand for low-income housing now than ever.

None of that completely answers the question though. We have limited real estate but some does exist for new construction. If there’s a demand for more housing, won’t the market provide it eventually?

Not necessarily.

Government barriers to affordability

The market has it’s issues, as we’ll get into, but government also has put up barriers to affordable housing in Athens. Sometimes zoning codes get in the way, and some types of housing are actually banned here! In areas zoned single-family, new houses have to be at least 1,000 square feet, so forget about tiny houses or shotgun shacks – they’re not allowed. New trailer parks also aren’t allowed in Athens, and neither are “in-law suites,” also known as accessory dwellings. These are examples of exclusionary zoning because they exclude certain types of homes – and maybe certain types of people – from living here.

Mayor Kelly Girtz has asked the Planning Commission to take a look at allowing accessory dwellings and making other changes to our code to promote affordable housing. When they’re finished, I’ll let you know what they decide on.

The housing market also causes problems

In the meantime, I’m sure you know that it’s not all the local government’s fault.

I haven’t talked about those massive luxury student apartment complexes yet. But oh they’re here, they’re big, and they’re definitely affecting the housing market. If you’re a developer, why would you build affordable housing when you could make one of these monstrosities for a bunch more money? Thanks to the HOPE Scholarship, UGA students are wealthier and have more spending money than ever before, so their needs come first for developers.

From 2000 – 2015, 67% of new apartments in Athens were built for students, and luxury apartments were becoming a hotter and hotter market. And in 2008, Airbnb was founded, which added a whole new dimension to this problem. Some rental units which were previously affordable for many, have now gone off the market entirely and have become essentially unregulated hotels. That took some units off the market when we needed to be increasing our housing stock.

A study of workforce housing in 2016 found that “There is a severe deficit in new housing development that is most desired by the workforce” in Athens. A few years later, in 2019, the GICH report on affordable housing found that “Without intentional and immediate intervention, the gap between affordable and not may deepen beyond reproach.”

Affordable housing is definitely a problem in Athens. The question is, what can we do about it?

What we can do about it

I wanted to find out, so I talked with Dr. Claire Bolton who has studied housing inequality since 2010 and also Michael Songster, a local builder.

Michael, we all know there’s a need in Athens for more affordable housing. Why can’t we build more of it?

Michael Songster: “We decided to concentrate our maximum density in one spot, where land is very expensive, where the construction costs are gonna be high, where you’re gonna have to put in structured parking, which is very expensive. And so, there was no way that those were ever going to be affordable.”

“The other side of that is, new construction typically is not very affordable, unless it’s subsidized. Housing has to age a little while before it becomes less expensive. And so I think that we’ve gotten ourselves into a hole, where we’ve undersupplied for a couple of decades and we just don’t have that older stock that is kind of aging out of being fresh and new and would become more affordable anymore. I think the notion that we’re going to build new affordable stuff is unrealistic. The market’s gonna provide 95% of our housing and its just not going to build affordable stuff, because people don’t make money doing it.”

But why is land so expensive in the first place?

Dr. Claire Bolton: “We’re in this era of wild speculation around land and housing related to sort of the phase of capitalism that we’re in. Land is just this incredibly important focal point of accumulating capital right now. And so that’s why you see people who are ‘real estate investors’ quote unquote. That’s why you see cities in China that have been built to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people but almost nobody actually lives there. People have just been investing in apartments there.”

“So, Marx talks and complains a lot about this relationship between use value and exchange value becoming truly twisted and warped under capitalism. That relationship is very well highlighted today when we look at housing. You can spend $400,000 to live in a tiny, piece of crap apartment on like the outskirts of New York City, where the use value is… you know, it’s a house, but its exchange value is so out of wack compared to the value that you get of actually just like experiencing it.”

So under capitalism, land and housing will just become more and more unaffordable then? There’s nothing we can do?

Dr. Claire Bolton: “We have such a narrative that things are inevitable, gentrification is inevitable because we see it happening now, so that means it has to always happen. But we actually can do a lot better with housing. We can have rent stabilization policies, we can have all these policies that essentially work to decommodifiy housing, so that the majority of people benefit from having more affordable housing.”

What are some of those policies?

Dr. Claire Bolton: “I believe Mayor Girtz has tasked the Planning Commission with coming up with a full set of re-zoning plans that would do what is called “equitable zoning.” So, equitable zoning is really important to sort of re-do the segregationist, exclusionary zoning policies of the past 50, 60 plus years.”

“A really good example would be around the Firefly / Greenway trail areas. We could have a buffer zone around a new amenity like the Firefly Trail, and you could say all houses within whatever distance from the trail will have their property taxes frozen.”

“Another really important thing is just to simply build more affordable housing. And, permanently affordable housing too. So, what that means is for example, housing through the land trust is considered permanently affordable, because it is completely off the private market. There are other forms of permanently affordable housing, too. If you have public housing, that is written into the contract. So, the answer is really building permanently affordable housing, and that’s something that can be done to some degree on the local level, and also requires massive cash infusion on the federal level, too.”

“You have to use public funding, because it’s not affordable and there is very little incentive for private builders to actually build affordable units just on their own out of their own good will.”

Michael, is there anything else we can do, locally?

Michael Songster: “I’m not sure how much control in Athens we have over the larger economic trends in the country, but we do have control over how we designate land for development and what we prioritize. You know, one of the striking statistics for Athens is that we have 60% of our population who rents, but 94, 93% of all of our residentially-zoned land is zoned for single family, not multi-family.”

“We have done several things over the last couple of decades to remove land from the rental market and make it exclusively single-family. I actually don’t think that there’s one thing we have to do, I think there’s probably a dozen things that we have to do. I think that smaller-scale, sort of organic, naturally-derived solutions have worked in the past and probably would work in the future. I mean, how many houses in town used to be divided up into multiple apartments and then got brought back in to single-family. We don’t really build much small multi-family stuff, we don’t do quadruplexes, and those are the things that are the least expensive from the outset from a construction-cost point of view.”

Thanks to you both! And thanks to you for watching.

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