As a current second-year student here at the University of Georgia, there’s plenty that Athens has to offer. I enjoy going out to eat with my friends and walking downtown. I love west campus dorm life. I look forward to potentially finding an internship here and to live in one of the many apartments that specifically accommodates students.
I see a bright future here if I continue to pursue the opportunities before me. However, what I and others have failed to recognize is the impact that our actions inflict on others. Despite the benefits UGA provides — it’s one of the largest employers in the county — our school indirectly makes Athens a breeding ground for homelessness and poverty through expensive real estate developments and exclusionary policies.
The wealth inequality in Athens-Clarke County is astounding. The top 1% of earners in the county make over 20 times that of the bottom 99%, and with our uncertain economic times, it is becoming increasingly harder to ignore.
Like many of my student peers, I have begun to think about where I will live for my remaining years here. I wasn’t expecting the hefty price tag that would accompany an apartment.
The cost of living here is catered towards college students. Landlords know that students are willing to pay large sums of money to live in these apartments, so they can maximize profit with eversteady demand. In Athens, the number of students is proportional to the city’s impoverished population — each roughly 29% of the population as of 2019.
Students might be able to pay that high cost of living, but what about residents who don’t have the means? As UGA grows, Athens generates a large sum of its revenue from college students. The city focuses on where it can get the most money, and sadly, affordable housing is not included in these pursuits. Although recently tabled due to disagreement, the city is considering adding another large apartment complex in the downtown area, a move which has historically driven up rent and pushed out people who cannot afford to pay.
Even if UGA is not technically inflating the housing market like the private actors in local real estate, its influence could be far more positive if it paid property taxes. Unsurprisingly, the thousands of acres under UGA’s purview make the school the county’s largest landowner. Since it is a publicly-owned educational institution, it has no obligation to pay property taxes, locally or otherwise.
Finances aside, UGA has also done damage in terms of the health of Athens’ homeless, especially since the onset of the pandemic. COVID-19 was rampant in Athens throughout 2020, and has recently spiked again with the return to campus. Upon the school’s opening, the number of cases in Athens rapidly increased. The student population ignited a hotbed for transmission that people who are homeless had fewer resources to combat.
Many people without homes don’t have adequate access to sanitation supplies and health care. Many are also disabled or have health complications, putting them at an even higher risk for complications from COVID-19.
When the pandemic response began, many homeless shelters closed. Those that remained open did not operate at full capacity, leaving an increasing number of people to live outside, made plain to anyone who walks around town. Even now, displacement persists.
However, strides have been made since the start of the pandemic. The county commission recently approved a site for a homeless encampment in town. While this is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go to create lasting change.
Although a lot of these factors do not directly fall on the hands of UGA students, that doesn’t mean that they can’t do their part. Many college students get so swept up in the excitement of college that they forget that they aren’t the only ones that live here.
We need to do better as a community. We cannot continue to blindly benefit from a city that hinders the lives of others. We need to do our part to ensure a decent standard of living for everyone.