Athens’ Luxury Student Apartment Boom Fuels Housing Anxiety

As heard on the radio.

“I’m going to show you one of the developments that’s finished that has the infinity pool on the roof,” Athens-Clarke County Housing and Community Development Director Rob Trevena says.

Trevena drives through downtown Athens, Georgia, which these days looks a lot like some of Atlanta’s booming neighborhoods: Construction is everywhere.

Like many of the new apartment complexes popping up in Midtown, Buckhead and along the BeltLine in the Old Fourth Ward, these new developments in Athens trend toward the luxury style. The Standard, the six-story complex with the infinity pool Trevena mentioned, lures tenants with advertisements boasting a “Live. Study. Play. Downtown.” lifestyle complete with a yoga studio, game room and tanning booths.

The word “study” is a tipoff to who inhabits these units.

“It’s 100 percent students,” Trevena says.

Urban centers full of young professionals are no longer the only place developers are trying to lure tenants with stainless-steel appliances, granite counter tops and state-of-the-art gyms.

In Athens and other college towns across the country, the same type of luxury constructions are getting greenlighted with similarly commanding rents. A lease at The Standard will cost students ─ or their parents ─ between $670 and $850 a month for a room in a shared unit and up to $1,275 for a one bedroom apartment.

Trevena drives just a few blocks away to another luxury high-rise for students that’s under construction.

“It’s huge,” Trevena says. “It’s like taking the whole block. The city block.”

By next year, Athens expects more than 3,000 beds to hit the market near the campus and downtown. These units aren’t just marketed for students, they’re also built for them.

Click here to view a chart of Athens-area housing by John Wall and Associates.

“Maybe a three or four bedroom apartment, where every bedroom has a bathroom, and they have a smaller kitchen and a very small dining area. So there there’s no common bathroom. It’s really like a small dorm.” Trevena says.

These types of complexes are fueling an unease among Trevena and other Athens residents about the future of the city’s housing market and whether some neighborhoods could sustain either a mass exodus or a mass influx of student tenants.  

Trevena says in the last decade, nearly 70 percent of new constructions have been built with students in mind. With so many more units about to hit the market, he worries about what will happen to Athens’ older, off-campus student housing complexes. He’s not alone.

“I think that the net effect is still … I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen,” says Steve Holloway, who teaches urbanism at the University of Georgia.

Holloway says this sort of development – what some call studentification – is a subset of gentrification. He says on the plus side, these new luxury complexes are being built in spaces that weren’t major residential areas before, so they likely won’t have a major displacing effect on poor, minority communities. Still, he also worries.

“Downtown should not be exclusively the playground of students with wealthy families,” Holloway says. “That is one of the risks.”

To fill all these apartments, the students will have to come from somewhere.

UGA’s enrollment is limited, so Athens residents in other parts of town worry communities a few miles away from campus, where older student constructions stand, will become destabilized.

Athens-Clarke County’s resident population is likewise fairly stable, but also poor. The poverty rate stands at 37 percent, compared to 18 percent statewide, according to census data.

Community concerns were on display at a recent community meeting about gentrification. 

“The number of developments that are coming in, we’re going to have this big vacuum as soon as these students move into these places, and Athens is going to have this huge stock of undervalued property,” says Linda Elder-Davis, a longtime resident of Athens.

Elder-Davis worries the developments, that not too long ago up-rooted some of Athens’ historic black communities, will eventually sit vacant and fall into disrepair.  

“All of these neighborhoods that currently have saturated with duplexes and student housing, you’re going to see them go down,” she says. “We’ve got to find somebody to live in those neighborhoods. I don’t know where they’re going to come from.”

Some in Athens-Clarke County are trying to devise a solution.

Trevena and his crew recently finished a workforce housing survey, with a goal of crafting a strategy to better address the low- and moderate-income community’s housing needs. Results are expected in the coming weeks.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link says she wants to see a moratorium on big student developments.

“We’ve been kind of bending over backwards to accommodate developers without really considering or even asking what the desires of our actual community are,” Link says, though she concedes there’s little support for that idea on the commission.

At the very least, Link says she’d like to see more in the way of design requirements for the downtown area, like size caps and inclusionary housing, meaning a portion of units set aside for more low-income residents.

“We’re just now starting to talk seriously about it, but it could be years to work such policy out and get it implemented,” she says.

Link worries by the time that happens, it could be too late to stop students from taking over downtown Athens.