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Lower Rents to Save Athens


The precipitous rise in rents around town has recently been in the news (“The Rent Is Too Damn High in Athens,” Feb. 20). We have to find a way to turn this around, or it has the potential to destroy what we love about Athens. This is an issue with plenty of negative ripple effects, and a phenomenon that we’ve seen play out before.  

It’s the story of the monetizing and then the inevitable destruction of “cool,” and if you look at American history, it pretty much happens the same way over and over and over. Downtown Athens as we now know it was in large part created by local artists, local business owners, local street preachers and other assorted locals (the key word being locals). When businesses moved from downtown out to the mall, it left a vacuum. That vacuum was filled by enterprising, creative locals who painted walls, who danced on street corners, who opened bars, bookstores, record stores and other ventures. People liked what they did, and so they flocked there. Alumni, traveling music fans, canvassers with their clipboards, even homeless people all congregated in our town square. (Our town square is shaped more like a really big rectangle, but it’s the same idea.)

This is how the story goes: The chain businesses departed. The artists and creative entrepreneurs moved in. The town—let’s call it “Happy Town”—became so interesting, so affordable and so different from their former residences that it even became a popular destination for retirees. All was well in Happy Town… and then the money men saw an opportunity, and they pounced.  

That’s when things began to head downhill. Rents rose past the point that locals could afford to open new businesses, and artists had to move on to the next deserted spot on the map. What remained was a carbon copy of every other suburban town in America. This is the story of Greenwich Village, and sadly, unless we turn it around fast, this will be the story of Athens.

It’s not too late to turn this phenomenon around before it devours our beloved Athens like a greedy python eating a multi-colored, open-minded gerbil. We must act now, or it really will be too late.  

Apparently, local rents are determined by the average rent in the vicinity. That means the rent at one of the luxury student high-rises downtown makes all of our rents go up. We didn’t need the luxury student high-rises. We needed student housing, but in an ideal world, the words “luxury” and “student” would repel each other like two positively charged magnets. The high-rises were built by developers trying to cash in on the “cool,” which is what inevitably begins to slowly destroy what made it cool to begin with. Also, this means of rent determination seems wildly incongruent with the basic principles of economics.  

It’s not too late. I don’t know how we turn this around, but Athens is very good at determining problems, then getting to work fixing them. Is there a legal means to keep all rents down? How does a building become rent controlled? I’m sure it’s not an easy road, but I’m equally sure that we need to do something.

Please, write back to this publication with some suggestions before Athens becomes Snellville. Even Snellville doesn’t want to be Snellville. It wants to be Athens, but it’s too late for Snellville. It’s not too late for Athens.