What a big-city developer would call “affordable housing” according to federal guidelines and what’s actually affordable for the average Athens resident are two different things—a dichotomy made clear by another proposed apartment building just a few blocks away from the Varsity.
Austin, TX-based real estate company Lincoln Ventures is proposing a 340-unit, 400,000-square-foot apartment building on Broad Street at the western edge of downtown, where a fraternity house and the Courtyard by Marriott hotel now stand. The developer has pledged to set aside 10% of the units as affordable or make a contribution to an existing affordable housing program. “We make a standard practice of collaborating with local housing authorities to deliver community benefits for those municipalities,” Lincoln Ventures representative Chris Johnson of Chicago said at the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission’s July 1 meeting.
Johnson said that those 34 units would be affordable for people making 80% of the Athens area median income of about $51,000 a year. Affordable one-bedroom units would rent for $1,100 a month (a $400 discount) and two-bedroom units for $1,200 (a 50% discount). Those figures are based on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines.
The Athens region, however, includes more affluent areas like Oconee County. In ACC alone, the median household income is just $38,000. Studies have found that many Athens residents are “housing stressed”—they spend more than a third of their income on housing—a situation that is exacerbated by the proliferation of luxury student housing downtown that has brought Atlanta rents to a town where few people make Atlanta wages.
Planning commissioner Kristen Morales (a Flagpole contributor) objected to the ongoing trend of constructing housing specifically meant for college students. “Can we just build an apartment building, and if students want to live there, fine? But stop building stuff that’s specifically for students,” she said. “What happened to just living in the community where you go to college and just experiencing the neighborhood as a college student?”
Relieving pressure on neighborhoods near campus was one rationale for ACC’s decision 20 years ago to drastically increase the density allowed downtown. But it seems to have had little effect on intown home prices, as neighborhoods from Normaltown to Nellie B continue to gentrify.
“Student housing and affordable housing don’t go together. That’s just coming from living here my whole life and working, trying to find housing in Athens that I can’t find, because it’s all student housing,” said Taylor Pass, a Black East Athens native newly appointed to what has historically been a virtually all-white board. “Everything that goes up is student housing. We need something for the residents here.”
Although Athens-Clarke County doesn’t yet have an inclusionary zoning policy requiring affordable housing, recently county commissioners have looked more favorably upon developments that agree to include affordable housing.
Issues of equity also surfaced. Lincoln Ventures’ proposed development will have a separate access point in the same building, referred to as a “poor door” in New York City, which does have inclusionary zoning, planning commission vice chairman Matthew Hall said.
“That’s a nonstarter, totally a nonstarter,” said longtime planning commission member Lucy Rowland. “I can’t even imagine somebody coming up with something like that.”
Families “may not prefer to live the student lifestyle, with people coming home at 3 a.m. from the bars and slamming doors and stuff like that. They may prefer that separation,” Johnson said. But he added that he is open to change based on more input.
The property—bounded by West Broad Street, Finley Street, Reese Street and Newton Street—is located on the edge of the downtown zoning district. “I think the site is currently terribly underutilized, and I think this is the direction that Broad Street is going and needs to go in the long term,” said Hall, who also raised some concerns about the specifics of the design, like a proposed plaza that doesn’t meet ACC’s setback requirements.
Rowland said that, decades ago, she heard people talk about downtown extending all the way to Alps Road. “I thought it was crazy. I’m not sure it was crazy anymore,” she said. “We have to be realistic. It’s no longer a nine-block downtown. It’s a much bigger world.”
ACC code requires commercial space on the ground floor of downtown developments. The Lincoln Ventures proposal includes some facing West Broad, but none elsewhere. Hall said that, with the inevitable development of the Bottleworks’ parking lot, Newton Street is trending toward becoming commercial. Rents are out of whack, though, he said. “We need more good restaurant spaces and other spaces downtown for local businesses,” Hall said. But no subsidies for local businesses are planned or available from ACC through programs like tax abatements, Johnson responded.
The planning commission only made comments on the development, which will come back for a formal recommendation to the mayor and commission at a later date.
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