Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file
A study released last month found that Athens lacks single-family homes that working families can afford, like these in Oconee County.
There is affordable housing for working people in Athens, experts said at a Federation of Neighborhoods panel discussion last week. You just might not want to live there.
A workforce housing study released last month found that families whose breadwinners work in Athens are moving to surrounding counties in large part because housing is too expensive here. Two-thirds of Athens households earn less than $50,000 a year, but it takes a $58,000 income to afford an average-priced home. “The predominant housing problem in Athens is in regards to affordability,” said Rob Trevena, director of the Athens-Clarke County Housing and Community Development Department.
Daniel Peiken, a real estate agent on the panel, said he sells primarily to low-income, first-time homebuyers. Houses they can afford “may not be in the neighborhoods everyone wants to live in,” he said. (A survey taken for the study cited Five Points and Prince Avenue as most desirable for their walkability.) “There are some neighborhoods where you can still get a condo for $35,000 on a bus line. You may not like the neighbors, but it’s a place to live.”
There are rental neighborhoods on the Eastside that are “affordable but not pleasant,” some without water, heat or air conditioning, said Heather Benham, executive director of the Athens Land Trust, which builds subsidized homes for low-income buyers. “They’re not places people should be living,” she said.
ACC has successfully revitalized neighborhoods before, most notably East Athens in the 1980s and ‘90s. The city built infrastructure and invested in amenities like the greenway, Trevena recalled. Now many residents are upset the neighborhood is gentrifying. “It’s understandable, but 20 years ago it was the same folks asking us to come in and help stabilize it,” he said.
Gentrification is a two-sided coin, noted Patrick O’Brien, a real estate agent in the audience. If you paid $30,000 for a house that’s now worth $400,000, “that’s like the best investment anybody ever made,” he said.
The real estate market is also cyclical, Peiken noted. New properties will inevitably become run-down over the years, then will get fixed up again or redeveloped. Most of Athens’ rental stock is in decent shape and vacancy rates are low, Trevena added, even with the recent spate of luxury student housing construction downtown. Some complexes’ units, though, have been bought by foreign investors sight unseen, which worries Benham.
Commissioner Melissa Link, though, sees the downtown construction boom as an existential threat that is forcing out the artists, musicians and “weirdos” who make Athens unique. She recommended a moratorium on downtown development; inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build a percentage of affordable units; downzoning downtown in order to offer density bonuses; and increasing density in-town through smaller lots and accessory structures.
Density is always a tricky issue. Laura Carter (wife of farmer and former commissioner Charles Carter) remembered the broken promise of TDRs. When development was all but banned in the rural “green belt,” the plan was to allow those landowners to sell their development rights for additional density in urban areas. That never happened because no one wanted to be in a “receiving zone” that would get denser.
For the same reason, ACC “ratcheted back” in-town density in the 2000 comprehensive plan, said homebuilder Michael Songster. “We are not where we are by accident,” he said.
The city has to grapple with these issues, Link said. “We’re going to have to ask some really tough questions, and we’re going to have to do it sooner rather than later.”