October 4, 2017

Athens Needs Density to Accommodate Growth and Bring in Taxes

As 15-year resident and avid Flagpole reader, I have held the roles of UGA student, service industry worker bee, Cedar Shoals Spanish teacher and am currently a licensed real estate agent who lives in Normaltown. Over the years, many debates have arisen with respect to how Athens should look and which businesses are representative of Athens. As usual, the answers to those questions depend on whom you ask.

High-rise buildings permeate the downtown landscape (as they are wont to do in any city center), and though I may hate the fact that the Georgia Heights building blocks the view of campus I once enjoyed from atop the Georgia Theatre, the utilitarian ethicist within me puts that emotion in check. That building generates more tax revenue for our beloved city than the surface parking lot previously inhabiting that space ever did. Still, I cannot help but wish they had built it one story shorter.

The recent uproar over the 155 Mitchell St. upzoning is just the latest in what I view as a well-intentioned, albeit misguided, way to promote social equity in the housing market. Simply put, it is not the developer’s responsibility to provide affordable housing (at least not without some type of subsidy). Large metropolitan areas like New York City, Washington, DC and Seattle offer substantial, sometimes decades-long tax breaks to developers of rental buildings who include a certain percentage of moderate- to low-income housing.

Note that the key word here is “rental.” Mitchell Street will not be a rental building, but instead a community of condominiums to be marketed towards individual owners. As noted by Charlie Maddox, “developers are in the business of making business.” Whether we like it or not, “developer” is not synonymous with “philanthropist,” and therefore developers will not invest in any venture that does not turn a profit. Furthermore, demanding that a private company that owns private land should sell condominiums at a potential loss or re-work their concept to become affordable rental units is not realistic.

Many of the comments that were made during the meeting centered around the idea that this development would not have any positive effect on the community at large. However, as Commissioner Harry Sims so aptly noted, 60 percent of the $700,000 in taxes generated by 155 Mitchell St. will go to the local school district. Our district is currently facing a $3.8 million deficit, and that $420,000 in additional funds each year are much needed to pay teacher salaries and fund after-school programs. If Commissioner Mike Hamby’s idea gains any traction, then a percentage of the remaining tax dollars could be allotted for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Those future condo owners, whether year-round residents or weekend warriors, will be spending money in Athens, thus supporting local businesses and increasing our tax base to pay for services (i.e. buses, public utilities, parks, etc.).

Would it be wonderful if Nichols Land and Investment were to build condos that sold for $150,000–$200,000 (still out of reach for most low to moderate income earners)? Or if they were to build a modest three-to-four-story structure that housed 50–75 units? Of course! Unfortunately, that is not the way development works. Maximum density for maximum profits is the nature of the beast. [Editor’s note: Before the rezoning, the maximum density allowed would have been approximately 40 bedrooms.]

While I both understand and agree that our community has a need for affordable housing, this problem cannot be alleviated by vilifying developers and scapegoating the planned development in question. The problem can be summed up in one word: cost. People want to live in town and downtown, and intown and downtown land is scarce and so has a higher value, and developments incur large expenses, therefore the finished product is marketed at a premium. Supply and demand.

As commissioners Sharyn Dickerson and Hamby expounded on the ways in which Athens-Clarke County is working to provide low-income housing, Commissioner Melissa Link stated the often overlooked need for moderate-income housing as well. I concur. My suggestion in this respect would be for the Mayor and Commission to revisit our local zoning ordinances that prohibit basement apartments (no full kitchens are allowed), detached dwellings behind existing single family homes, and tiny houses. Amending these ordinances would allow for more density in residential areas and could provide a portion of that much-needed housing. Additionally, the Georgia Affordable Housing Coalition has a list of developers who specialize in building affordable rental communities by taking advantage of subsidies like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Maybe ACC could work with one of those companies and the Hospital Authority to develop the lots on Prince Avenue across from ARMC/Piedmont?

Nostalgia is a powerful drug, but Athens can never be what it once was. The arguments over downtown high-rises are by their very nature reactive, not proactive. We need more tax dollars to fund schools, social programs and affordable housing. We need to adhere to the downtown master plan. Finally, we need to work towards creating the community we want through collaboration, not condemnation. People can’t hear you when you’re yelling.