Brandi Duncan-Herrington knows well that affordable housing is dwindling in her town of Starkville, Mississippi.
As executive director of Starkville Strong, a grassroots volunteer organization, Duncan-Herrington works with residents who are homeless to find them stable shelter. In other small cities in northeastern Mississippi’s Golden Triangle, a three-bedroom apartment usually costs $600, she says. But in Starkville, it’s triple that.
She attributes this to the presence of Starkville’s local college, Mississippi State University.
“We’re not building more apartments for residents. It’s mainly for tourism,” she says. “That would mean gameday homes, gameday rentals or even college students who are coming here to stay. So the rent is astronomical because they are intending for there to be two families, or two or three college students, who are going to split the price.”
Gameday homes, investment properties where out-of-towners stay for football games and little else, are contributing to an increase in housing costs for permanent residents in Southern college towns like Starkville, according to a new study.
“It absolutely is something that exists elsewhere,” says Taylor Shelton, assistant professor of geosciences at Georgia State University and the study author. “But it seems like based on the size, relative isolation of certain college towns in the South, and then the particular importance culturally of college football, that it’s in those places that this phenomenon is really the biggest deal.”
Shelton moved to Starkville in 2017 to work at Mississippi State. As he walked around his neighborhood, he noticed condo developments where the lights never seemed on and found out that many were gameday homes, used on a minimal basis the majority of the time.
Starkville is Shelton’s case study. Between 5 to 10 percent of all housing units in Starkville are likely gameday homes, he estimates. In some neighborhoods, more than 75 percent of housing units are used for just the six weekends a year when college football teams play home games.
Data on gameday homes is hard to come by. Shelton identified these homes by analyzing U.S. Census data for vacant properties and local data on residential properties where the owner lives outside of Starkville. He found that Starkville has only 175 Airbnb listings, but his lowest estimate for suspected gameday homes is 663.
These homes affect costs for long-term residents. From 2010 to 2020, the median home sale price in Starkville’s Oktibbeha County increased 63 percent—more than double the rate of growth in home values and also outpacing inflation and income growth, according to Shelton’s study. A majority of this growth in prices happened during the boom in gameday home development.
Gameday homes are increasing across Southern college towns. Shelton looked at 13 cities in addition to Starkville, including Athens, Georgia (home of the University of Georgia), Gainesville, Florida (home of the University of Florida) and Auburn, Alabama (home of Auburn University). But Starkville has a particular glut of gameday homes. Over the last 15 years, almost all of the net growth in housing units has included vacant properties, many of which are suspected to be gameday homes, according to the study.
Shelton also says the gameday homes are concentrated in Starkville’s limited number of walkable neighborhoods.
The effects of gameday homes are similar to short-term rentals like Airbnb, but the nature of gameday homes are different, he says. They are concentrated in smaller cities, either without a large housing supply or nearby towns to absorb the demand for housing.
Duncan-Herrington isn’t surprised by the prevalence of gameday homes in Starkville.
“Our town thrives only because of the university… So with that, our tourism and our apartments that are being built and condos that are getting their permits and going up are geared toward that influx of money,” she says. “On the other hand, I wish these people could be cognizant of the fact that there is a community of people that live here who are being underserved while they are filling their pockets.”
She adds that if people had more awareness of Starkville’s housing issues, maybe they could find a way to give back.
Shelton calls for local regulations to ensure that gameday homes don’t raise housing prices for residents. Larger cities such as New York City and Vancouver have seen success with taxing vacant properties, he says.
This map shows gameday homes as a percentage of all properties in Starkville, Mississippi. It highlights places within the Starkville area that have the highest proportion of gameday homes relative to the total number of properties. While roughly 10 percent of Starkville’s housing stock is in gameday homes, some areas see gameday homes representing upwards of 50 to 75 percent of the total properties in a neighborhood. (Map credit: Taylor Shelton)
In 2019, after months of public input and controversy, Starkville tabled a proposal to regulate short-term rentals. Shelton says he tried to convince the alderman who introduced the proposal to focus on gameday homes, but it didn’t go anywhere.
“Almost any regulation of housing issues in places like these, especially in the South, is mostly a political non-starter,” he says, adding that state-level regulations often prohibit stricter tenant-landlord regulations at the municipal level.
Shelton says cities like collecting property taxes on gameday homes because they’re assessed at a higher value. The local government also needs to provide minimal services since owners don’t use a lot of water and electricity and don’t enroll their kids in the school district.
“It’s kind of a good deal in some ways just from a budgetary standpoint, but there are these other effects that aren’t really being taken account of that I think lots of people who live in these places are acutely aware of,” he says. “What cities need to be focused on is how they can address the housing market concerns or the quality of life issues that arise from prime housing in the city sitting vacant the vast majority of the time and contributing nothing to the quality of life and experience of people who choose to make these places their home.”
Meanwhile, Starkville Strong is planning to have a meeting on housing by the end of the summer with the city government and influential people and organizations in the community.
The housing problem isn’t getting easier. Brookville Garden Apartments is one of the few places with affordable housing. In May, the city ordered three of the complex’s buildings demolished because it deemed them a “menace” to public health, safety and welfare. That displaced residents from affordable housing.
“I’m in this active phase of trying to be proactive instead of reactive,” Duncan-Herrington says. “But I can’t seem to keep up with the demand.”
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta. She writes on a range of topics with specialties in city design, business and death. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, CityLab, U.S. News & World Report, and other national and local outlets.