Opinion: Threatened by facts, UGA tries to bully independent newspaper | Podcast #20

This one is about why UGA hates a particular story I wrote recently and why they’re wrong.

Here’s the story UGA has an issue with.

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The photo of the UGA Arch above was taken by user JR P on Flickr.com and is used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Transcript

Hey everybody. Welcome to the Athens Politics Nerd podcast where we talk about politics and local news, usually about the mayor and commission in Athens, Georgia. But, that’s NOT what we’re discussing today. This one is about why UGA hates a particular story I wrote recently and why they’re wrong.

“A troubling narrative based on faulty logic and incorrect facts surrounding the University of Georgia continues to be perpetuated throughout the community.”

At least that’s what UGA says. And maybe you saw the article they’re talking about published in the Flagpole – it’s about a development planned for 155 Mitchell Street. Yes, another giant tower of luxury student apartments is coming to the downtown area. I am not a big fan of these, and neither is Commissioner Melissa Link. She was one of three commissioners who voted against approving a similar development back in 2017. That one was never built, for whatever reason, but now a developer has new plans they want approved for that same site.

It’s for a 10-story apartment complex with 381 beds in 163 units.

Unlike in 2017, this time it’s probably going to be unanimous. Even Link herself is planning to vote for it. So what changed since 2017? A few things – first, the design is a bit better, and I’ll let Link explain that part of it:

ACC Commissioner Melissa Link: “I’m grateful to see buildings designed with cornuses and mantered rooftops, instead of just the chunky lego blocks that we’re seeing over and over. I’m grateful to see that there’s some traditional development to this design. I’m not saying it’s a beautiful building or anything, but it feels like it’s wearing a hat, not just this block soaring into the sky.”

ACC Planning Director Brad Griffin: “That is something that they were requested to look into by the Planning Commission.”

Link: “Good.”

The second improvement is that the developer is voluntarily deciding to include some affordable units. There will be at least 8, but there could be 16 units or more that are guaranteed affordable at 60 or 80 percent of the area median income – this is all yet to be decided, but we know it will be somewhere in that range, to comply with the commission’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.

So that’s great. But there’s another reason why they’ll all vote yes. That’s because we desperately need more student housing. I know, I know! How could we need more luxury apartments for students? Don’t we have enough of those?? 

Ahh… no. We don’t. Let me explain. According to UGA’s website, there are currently about 40 thousand students attending UGA. Eight years ago in 2014, there were a little over 35 thousand students, so that’s an increase of about 5,000 students in eight years, or ~625 new students a year on average. 

Over the same period, UGA has built exactly one dormitory. One. That’s Black-Diallo-Miller Hall which has a capacity of 525 beds. So it only houses about 10% of the increase in the student population over the past eight years. So where do the other 4,500 students live? They reside in a magical land that we like to call OFF-CAMPUS.

Real quick, I should clarify that UGA does have campuses in other communities, not just Athens. Of the 40,000 total UGA students, only 38,698 go to the Athens campus. And some of those students live in neighboring counties, I’m sure. But the point stands that hundreds of new UGA students come to Athens every year and look for a place to live. When they don’t find a place on-campus, they go off-campus into student apartment complexes like the one the commission is about to approve on Mitchell Street. The other option is for them to compete for the housing that the rest of us need, that’s just a fact.

So the commission is approving Mitchell Street, because they have to. This development only accounts for about one year’s worth of student housing capacity -at best-. If UGA doesn’t build more housing, and it doesn’t seem like they are, we’ll need at least one Mitchell Street tower’s worth a year, just to stay even with the demand for -student- housing. There’s also a demand for non-student housing that’s growing.

And that’s why I say in the article that, if we don’t approve the Mitchell Street tower, or a development like it, students will start to quote “compete for homes with permanent residents which might boost already high rents even higher.”

And I’ve heard the same thing from commissioners as a reason why they’re eager to approve this development. We need housing, period, and a lot of that need has to do with UGA admissions. You know, I didn’t even realize I was criticizing UGA when I wrote that.

But they did not like it. Rod Guajardo, Senior Director for Integrated Media Communications at UGA, wrote to the Flagpole to complain about me. He says I’m “attempt[ing] to put forth” a “false narrative” that UGA’s “student population is competing with permanent residents.” 

And not to quibble, but I didn’t even say that. Again, the quote is “If apartments for them are not built, these students would compete for homes with permanent residents.” If, would. That’s conditional mood, Rod, look it up, Mr. Communications Expert.

He continues, saying that UGA has built eight dorms since 2004, which is true, granted, but it’s also true that they’ve built one since 2014.

So, he does mention a slight error that slipped into the Flagpole version somehow, but that error was corrected and look, this wasn’t a polite ask to fix a minor error in the article. That’s not what this is about. They’re threatened by the larger point I was making.

So threatened, that they’re trying to bully the Flagpole into running a god-awful op-ed by Alison McCullick, the UGA Director of Community Relations. Flagpole is refusing to run this as is, good on them, but let’s go over it anyway, shall we?

Alison starts her op-ed saying she wants quote “to set the record straight regarding that narrative, which was most recently repeated by Chris Dowd” – so apparently, this is a “narrative” that has popped up multiple times that they’re trying to quash. It sounds like their real issue is with the truth here, but make up your own mind on that.

She continues, saying that UGA students aren’t competing with permanent residents for housing right now. And I mean, I wasn’t even saying that they were. If you want me to say that, Alison, I just might, but that’s not what I said. Anyways, Alison continues, saying that UGA provides over 9 thousand beds for students on campus, or for just about one quarter of the total student population, which she thinks is good, I guess, and then she says, don’t worry, quote “We are currently studying the feasibility of adding more on-campus housing in the future.”

So that means you have no concrete plans to build anything, you’re just “studying the feasibility.” Great, thank you, that’s worth nothing?

Next, she says that “private off-campus student housing beds have increased by over 5,300 since 2010,” and hey – that’s a fair point, actually. I think she has a ways to go before convincing me that UGA students aren’t distorting the housing market here in Athens, but fair point, there are enough quote unquote “student” beds for them to sleep in. So far. I think that’s more or less accurate.

And she concludes by saying quote, “Assertions that additional new student housing complexes must be built to avoid students competing with local residents and driving up their housing costs are simply not supported by the facts.” 

What? This one really takes the cake, because Alison, you just got done making that solid point about the extra 5,300 off-campus beds. What would happen without those beds? And what will happen in 2025 or 2030 if the Mitchell Street tower isn’t built? Might the students start competing with permanent residents? Who’s to say?

This to me reveals more than anything that UGA has a guilty conscience about the housing situation here in Athens, as well they should. 

And I didn’t make this point in the article, but I do think UGA is distorting the housing market, already here in Athens. 

When the Prosperity Capital Partners story broke, I kind of went back and forth about whether it’s even going to work out for those guys financially, you know? Like, okay, you’re kicking out people who were paying rent on time. If you work with them, Randy and Sara Jo Lawrence, they’ll keep paying you, you know that right? But their plan is to kick everyone out, then renovate the units, and later market them to an entirely different crowd – the UGA crowd, I assume, and sell at a huge profit. That’s the plan, which is laid out on their website pretty explicitly. What I go back and forth on, is … will UGA students really want to live in Hidden Pines, for example? Even if those units are renovated, I’m not so sure.

But knowing UGA plans to continue admitting more and more students every year, and knowing they have no plans to build new dorms, well, these students have got to go somewhere. So it just might work out for them, and for UGA, who doesn’t have to spend money on new dorms. Their profit will come at our expense. Most notably, at the expense of the people Prosperity is displacing right now, but also it will come at the expense of other renters in the community, and at the expense of people who just don’t like giant student apartment complexes or the traffic and the strain on the rest of our infrastructure that these new students will bring. 

Now, I should say that these new customers will benefit our economy, no doubt, but to try and cover up the downside of this kind of growth, and to bully local independent newspapers just because you can, or because you have a guilty conscience and want to cover up the facts, that’s despicable. I’m so tired of the university throwing their weight around. If you don’t want to help make our community a better place, just mind your own business and stop trying to interfere in my work and in the work the Flagpole does to keep everyone informed.

Thanks to my patrons, but this time I’ll leave you all out of it and we won’t have the typical credit scroll. There’s no one who is responsible for this podcast except for me. Okay. See you all soon!

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