August 16, 2017

Downtown Apartments Are Less Than Ideal for Families

Kiddie Dope

Photo Credit: Kristen Morales

The author and her son tour The Mark. Maybe he’ll live there in 18 years and let her swim in the pool.

There has been some talk in recent years about bringing a more diverse group of residents to downtown Athens. As the dawn of The Mark, with its more than 900 bedrooms, comes upon us, it’s pretty clear that’s not happening anytime soon.

It’s yet to be seen what the influx of new student apartments will mean to the overall downtown scene. As it is, the lack of green space and general places for kids to run around makes downtown a less-than-ideal destination for parents. The sidewalks are difficult to navigate if you have a stroller, and the stores (bars) aren’t necessarily kid-friendly.

That’s just if you want to visit downtown. What if you want to live there?

Apartment complexes that cater to college students still have to follow the same rules that all landlords must follow. The federal Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when it comes to renting an apartment based on things such as race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability or familial status.  

This last phrase is what got me thinking when it came to the many new student-oriented apartments now available downtown. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, unless a building or a community qualifies as senior housing (55 and up), it cannot exclude families with at least one child younger than 18. This also applies to women who are pregnant.

Discrimination means that, if I were to walk into a student-oriented apartment leasing office, I’d have to be told that, no, I could not rent an apartment with my 15-month-old. Let me be clear: That did not happen.

Because, yes, that’s what I did—at several downtown apartments. My baby and I were welcomed, given tours and offered lots of floor plans to help make our decision.

And let me tell you, now that I’ve seen the options, if I were moving with a child—of any age—any of these apartment complexes would be great. Free Starbucks in the lobby, a game room, pools, golf simulators, Wi-Fi everywhere. Even the furniture is included! The only thing I’d have to pay for each month is my electricity. And rent.

Which is the catch. Because while I might be interested in renting a bedroom with my baby—for, say, starting at $800 a month, which is not an unreasonable amount to rent a bedroom in my current neighborhood—there’s a limited amount of time I would be able to rent just one bedroom. Depending on where you go, you and your child could share a room until they turn 2, or you couldn’t share at all. This is because these apartment complexes rent per person, per bedroom. A family of three—parents and a child, for example—would have to rent a three-bedroom apartment (or three bedrooms in a four-bedroom unit) in order to qualify.

I spoke with several lawyers about this, and the bottom line is that the practice is not discriminatory. The issue of making a married couple rent two bedrooms is questionable—and someone might argue that any family would probably not want to rent a unit with roommates—but still, the overall issue, to me anyway, casts a shadow on our overall downtown housing situation.

Obviously, offering a single mother two bedrooms for $1,600 a month is not something she can easily stomach, no matter how great her job is. And we all know that single moms are usually rolling in it. (That’s a joke.)

Beyond the shiny new student-oriented apartments, the only other options for families in the downtown core are public or Section 8 housing. Sure, there are some individual apartment units available above some of the downtown stores, but again, there is the issue of renting per bedroom.

If you are a parent with a child, and you want them to experience living downtown, or you want to walk to your job at the University of Georgia, your options are overwhelmingly student apartments or subsidized housing. What message is this sending to our families?

So, as we welcome UGA students back to campus, let’s take a moment to reflect on how the back-to-school season is changing our downtown. I’m not saying students are bad—in fact, they bring a vibrancy and life to our city that makes it a great place to live. But if we want to keep students in Athens after graduating, and allow them space to start families of their own, then we need a downtown with options.