Rashe Malcolm loves her son Wayne and his girlfriend, but she’d also love it if they could move out of the three-bedroom home in Athens, Ga., that she shares with the couple, both 23, as well as her husband and two of her three other children.
But the rent is too high for anyone to go anywhere, at least locally.
“If you go to these newer units, I mean if you can get one for $1,800, that’s considered cheap,” said Ms. Malcolm, 48. “For a one-bedroom — a one-bedroom. It’s like $2,100 on average.”
Life in Athens, a city of about 127,000 residents, is centered around its largest employer: the flagship campus of the University of Georgia, which enrolls more than 40,000 students and employs about 10,000 people. Like many U.S. cities, it has seen rents rise over the past few years, even as developers have added new units to the market. Much of the construction is luxury off-campus housing for the growing student population.
But Ms. Malcolm believes that the rent issue in Athens has more to do with football.
The Georgia Bulldogs — the two-time defending national champions — draw some 90,000 spectators to Sanford Stadium for six or seven home games every fall, essentially creating an alternate market for short-term rentals that lasts about three months. Real estate investors are buying and building homes for fans who will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a weekend of housing for a home game, and the effects are impacting local residents all year long. According to AirDNA, which tracks the performance data of Airbnb and VRBO vacation rentals, there are currently 1,135 short-term rentals available in Athens — up from 865 in November 2022 — with 88 percent of them comprising an entire private home.
Ms. Malcolm, who lives on the west side of Athens, runs a nonprofit called Farm to Neighborhood and a food truck and catering company, Rashe’s Cuisine, on the city’s east side, not far from Sanford Stadium. “It is a historically Black area,” she said, “so when football games happen, you do start to see more non-Black people coming through the neighborhood and walking over to the liquor store to get beer to go back to their rental.”
Athens is no outlier. Around the United States, in small cities reliant on college sports to keep their economies humming, short-term rentals are destabilizing housing markets, fueled by wealthy fans and investors who transform single-family homes into de facto hotels for a few weeks out of the year, and often leave them sitting empty the rest of the time.
“College athletics, in particular college football, have become so enormous in this country, particularly in the Southeast, that it has caused this phenomenon of short-term rentals,” said Adrien Bouchet, director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. “On one hand it creates value, but on the other hand, it definitely hurts people that have lived in and around the university for a long time.”
Mr. Bouchet pointed to similar market trends in Southern college towns like Auburn, Ala., Tuscaloosa, Ala., Gainesville, Fla., and Oxford, Miss., where football rules the economy during the fall. Over the past year, the supply of short-term rentals has grown 34 percent in Tuscaloosa (home to the University of Alabama), 33 percent in Columbia, Mo. (University of Missouri), and 11 percent in South Bend, Ind. (University of Notre Dame), according to data from AirDNA. Bookings typically peak in November.
But it’s not just the rental markets that are affected — investors are overpaying for the houses they rent out, pulling sale prices out of reach for many locals.
“They have very wealthy alumni that have no problems buying second houses, whether that’s for their kids to go there or whether that’s just for them to have a good time seven or eight weekends a year,” Mr. Bouchet said. “And that’s caused the price of these houses to go through the roof and push people out of these neighborhoods.”
Affordable-housing advocates say that without limits on where and how these rentals may operate, college football towns are helpless to prevent excessive increases in rents and home prices.
Marilyn Vickers, a retired clinical psychologist, raised three children in a house on a leafy cul-de-sac in Athens. For years, a neighbor’s copse of sweet gums and oaks would filter the afternoon sun into her dining room. But this summer, after she returned from some traveling, she found the trees felled and a two-story pool house under construction close to her property line, part of a larger complex that now includes a renovated six-bedroom, five-bath ranch house. The Texas-based investors have yet to open their property to paying guests, but VRBO lists it as available to up to 16 people, with the first night, Feb. 1, set at $1,250.
Ms. Vickers, 78, who installed drapes to block the view, worries that the spate of short-term rentals in residentially zoned neighborhoods “is hollowing out the community.”
In September, Athens-Clarke County imposed a temporary moratorium on future short-term rentals in single-family zoned districts, spurred not just by economics but by the increase in complaints involving noise and traffic congestion. The move was opposed by some local homeowners who rely on short-term rental income and do it responsibly. But critics say that regulations haven’t gone far enough in a county with hundreds of homeless residents and an affordable-housing shortage.
“Right now, the housing market favors the investor over just the average human being, and we prioritize our freedom to speculate and invest and profit off of housing,” said Joe Lavine, 28, a social worker who does outreach with homeless residents. He questioned why the moratorium doesn’t include neighborhoods zoned for multifamily housing, which tend to be in poorer districts and have more people of color.
“If you put a moratorium on short-term rentals in single-family neighborhoods, then if an investor truly wants to buy and invest in short-term rentals in Athens, they’re going to go to multifamily zoned neighborhoods,” he said.
In South Bend, Ind., Constance Peterson-Miller and her husband, Christopher Miller, bought their Cape Cod-style house in 1993 for about $45,000 in the residential Harter Heights neighborhood, blocks from Notre Dame Stadium. Now they’re nearly surrounded by short-term rentals — two across the street, one next door, and one bordering their backyard. With so many investors scooping up homes, Harter Heights has been irrevocably changed.
“What we have are a lot of empty houses rented out occasionally, with all its attendant issues that are unaffordable or just not available to the new folks coming in,” said Ms. Peterson-Miller, 64. “Houses are being purchased, flipped, and then they stand empty for sometimes weeks upon weeks. It appears they are let out for the space of a few weekends during the football season.”
In Harter Heights, rents for one-bedroom apartments have risen 89 percent since 2013, according to data compiled by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, dramatically outpacing the national average.
Officials in South Bend can do little to stop the surge. In 2018, Indiana’s state legislature enacted a law prohibiting local governments, cities and counties from passing ordinances regarding short-term rentals, said Troy Warner, a city council member. Mr. Warner understands the power of market forces, but if he could improve that law, he said, he’d restrict the percentage of a neighborhood that can be used for short-term rentals. He’d also like the law to require property owners who rent their homes to give their contact information to local officials.
“Every time I’ve got an issue, I have to go through property records, and it’s very hard to find out who owns these,” said Mr. Warner, a South Bend native whose district includes Harter Heights.
Kip Tyner, the city council president in Tuscaloosa, Ala., has no problem with homeowners renting out rooms or even vacating their homes on football weekends for fans of the Crimson Tide. But investor-owned homes have no place in a residentially zoned neighborhood, he said.
“It’s so hypocritical of us as a city because we don’t allow a hair salon, we don’t allow a tax preparer or whatever to be in a neighborhood because that’s a business,” Mr. Tyner said. “So you’re going to allow short-term rental, which is definitely a business. People are making huge amounts of money in our neighborhoods, but they don’t even live here.”
The rush of investors turning private homes into short-term hotels is “absolutely” contributing to Tuscaloosa’s affordable-housing shortage, said Ellen Potts, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa. “It ties up a lot of rental housing that would be for families,” she said. A landlord friend of hers, she said, “is making so much more money than she used to, renting it for maybe $1,200 a month, when she’s renting it for $2,000 or $3,000 a weekend.”
In Columbia, Mo., planning officials, concerned about the reduction of units available for residents to rent or buy, have been laboring for years to tweak regulations on short-term rentals, said Patrick Zenner, development services manager for the City of Columbia.
The city has seen its supply of short-term rentals balloon to 463 this fall — up 32 percent from last year. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the Missouri Tigers have gone from a middling program to a national powerhouse, currently ranked No. 9 in the country.)
“Commercialization of basically a residential neighborhood was something that was a concern,” Mr. Zenner said. “And then, this tangential relationship between the removal of affordable housing and that being either rental or for purchase, as my planning commission likes to refer to as attainable housing. “
In South Bend, Ms. Peterson-Miller, whose two children are grown, laments the changes to her neighborhood. “As we aged, it was a wonderful thing to be surrounded by these generations upon generations of children that grow up and then they move to another home,” she said. “We looked after each other. We were multigenerational. We knew each other.”
The bottom line, she said: “It’s impacting how we form community and how we sustain all the goods of that community. “