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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The battle of housing costs in two college towns

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The Old Well, complimented by late summer flora, stands tall on August 7, 2022. 

UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Georgia are adversaries as old as time. Both schools claim to be the nation’s first public university. Both Chapel Hill and Athens have been named as best college towns in the country in years past. And both schools have plenty of national championships under their belt, so the comparison makes sense. 

The one thing those slobbery Bulldogs have on us, though? Athens is cheaper than Chapel Hill. 

Housing costs in Athens are 28% less expensive than in Chapel Hill, according to the Forbes Cost of Living Calculator. When compared to a national index of 100, Chapel Hill’s housing costs soar to 157.5, whereas those in Athens settle at 79.7. 

Those numbers don’t scare you? Let’s twist the knife a little bit.

Say you earn the median pre-tax household income in Chapel Hill, $75,249. You decide to move to Athens because you prefer football over basketball, or you look better in red. You would only need a household income of $68,402 to maintain your same standard of living.

Think about all the He’s Not Here blue cups you could buy with that extra $6,847.

Not only do residents of Chapel Hill get the short end of the stick, but UNC students also feel a similar kick to the stomach. UNC’s room and board costs reach $13,016 per year, whereas Georgia’s fall around $11,246. 

The discrepancy in housing costs is even more insulting considering almost all of their residence halls are more updated than ours. Their youngest dorm completed construction in 2022, while our newest dorm was finished during JFK’s presidency. Just kidding — Koury earned its last brick in 2002. 

On the bright side, while UGA students may have a little extra spending money, we have stronger immune systems. Molding air conditioning units and archaic mattresses will challenge you like that. 

Why do we accept such high on-campus housing costs for asbestos and shin splints, anyway? Our friends over at the University of Virginia only cough up $7,470 to live on campus their first year and some lucky students can even stay in the same dorm that housed Thomas Jefferson. A twin-sized bed and communal showers are not worth student loans, so what’s the allure?

Maybe it’s just the price tag that comes with living less than a mile away from one of the best college towns in the country. Maybe we all see higher education as enough of a privilege to happily pay the charge to our bank account. Whatever it may be, 19,743 undergraduate students chose to enroll here for the 2023-2024 school year. 

Chapel Hill is more expensive and in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. While that is decidedly bad and poses a threat to many people’s fundamental right to shelter, its status as a hot commodity says some good things about the town we all love. 

It’s one of the pivotal prongs to the Research Triangle, a term that recognizes the area connected by Duke, UNC and NC State as a hub of innovation and biotech companies. In fact, Chapel Hill is home to the third highest concentration of per capita Ph.D.s in the U.S. 

People flock here to pursue academic opportunities. And when they do, they drive up demand for housing. The town of Chapel Hill can’t always support this demand due to zoning restrictions and a lack of available land. Couple these limitations with high taxes, quality public schools and college students eating up a lot of renting stock and you'll get a tight housing market sporting lots of dollar signs. 

Athens is notably larger than Chapel Hill, meaning there’s more available land for residential developments. It also chose to tackle the issue of affordable housing with zoning policy changes about fifteen months before the Chapel Hill Town Council took measures to “increase opportunities for a range of housing types.” 

Lastly, Athens is over an hour’s drive from Atlanta. This makes Athens a relatively more rural spot than Chapel Hill, which can further account for the difference in costs of living. 

Chapel Hill's lack of affordable housing for students is just a microcosm of a nationwide problem, where the cost of room and board is increasing faster than tuition. The words “college” and affordable” have essentially become paradoxical. 

You either come into this world lucky enough to have a support system that funds your way there or you’re forced to take out student loans that follow you for the rest of your life. 

Having to worry about the tax bracket of your college town is just another stressor that can make higher education feel inaccessible. But even if my rent makes my eyes cross every time I go to pay it, I’d choose to be a Tar Heel over a Bulldog any day. 

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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