Looking at the real estate market in Savannah post pandemic
City Talk columnist Bill Dawers discusses the real estate market in Savannah and Chatham County following the pandemic.
Savannah Morning News
More than 20,000 households in Savannah cannot afford to live in quality housing, and the city would need to spend $1.5 billion to address that need, according to findings from the Savannah Housing Task Force.
The task force was created by Mayor Van Johnson last summer and swiftly established a goal of forming an action plan to address Savannah’s housing affordability crisis, where housing costs have outpaced incomes by 100% since 1990.
More: Read the full report here
Johnson said the finalization of the report is exciting and a first for the city.
“One of the number one contributing factors to poverty is the lack of affordable housing. And if someone is paying over 30% of their take-home income toward housing, we have a problem,” Johnson said.
“So in providing affordable housing, we’re also addressing one of the major constructs, if you will, in our issue of poverty.”
The task force met between September 2020 and May 2021. Dozens of community stakeholders helped formulate 43 action items, including the formation of a new nonprofit tasked with the sole mission of making Savannah an affordable place to live.
Martin Fretty, director of Housing and Neighborhood Services for the City of Savannah, said when it came to putting the task force together diversity played an important part.
“We wanted to have a diverse group of people with backgrounds, a diverse group of people participating based upon gender and also by race,” he said.
Johnson and council appointed members to the task force and Fretty’s office also provided input, which eventually grew the task force to about 40 members.
The task force split into six smaller committees, which focused on six different subject areas: resources, policy and regulation, housing cost and production, homeowners and homebuyers, renters, and homelessness.
Nearly 53,000 Savannahians cannot afford quality housing
Housing Savannah found that 40% of the city’s 52,927 (FY19) households cannot afford “quality housing,” the term used to describe housing that’s not only affordable, but safe and well-maintained. Most families that have a collective income of $50,000 or below ($35,000 for a single-income household) are the most at-risk to be cost burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their salary on rent or mortgage payments, according to findings detailed in the 97-page report.
Fretty said the report ultimately belongs to the community.
More: Coastal Empire Habitat for Humanity wants to help first-time buyers with getting a house
“We listened to what they had to say, we looked at what they submitted, we tried to formulate what it was, we were seeing and hearing, and put it into a plan, but at the end of the day, it’s the task force’s plan and that’s the community’s plan, not a city government plan,” Fretty said.
The task force grounds its research and recommendations in the most current verifiable data, substantiating what many in the city have lived for decades: Savannah is pricing its poorest — and many middle-class — families out of its downtown economic hub, away from reliable transportation, jobs and their established communities.
While it ultimately will be up to council to adopt and endorse the recommendations, Fretty said he felt that the report was broad enough to offer something each member could get behind.
“It’s like everything in life, I’m pretty sure that there isn’t everything in there that everybody’s going to want to get behind or feel extremely excited about, or even knowledgeable about,” he said.
“But I think it’s a broad enough plan and I think the five strategies are really pretty sound.”
The problems, the findings estimate, could take more than 50 years to solve. Here’s what the task force hopes to accomplish in the short term over the next 10 years:
No. 1: Increase awareness and support for Housing Savannah
Community buy-in is needed before the city can begin to address the litany of issues facing low-income residents.
The plan is aggressive, and while it won’t be an easy task to carry out, it is doable, Johnson said. The first step will be for city council to endorse or adopt the plan.
“When we adopt the plan it will require some annual commitment from the council,” he said.
“Some of that is financial, but I think even more immediate would be the establishment of the non-governmental organization that we would hope to have up and running by the beginning of the year.”
The report lays out a plan to create a countywide Housing Savannah nonprofit with a board comprised of city and county officials, as well as philanthropic and business leaders in the community.
“The only way this plan will work, is it’s gonna take city government, county government, federal funds, philanthropic organization, businesses, and other organizations to chip in and help,” said Israel G. Smalls, co-chair of the Housing Savannah Task Force and former assistant city manager.
The task force will make a presentation to city council in the coming weeks, and Fretty said task force leadership didn’t feel it was appropriate for it to present this plan to Chatham County, the business community or the philanthropic community until it first turned it into the mayor and aldermen. They hope city leaders will take the next steps to make those connections.
More: Savannah’s task forces: What they’re studying, how they’re progressing and when will they deliver results
With the right people and partners behind it, Fretty believes the majority of the plan is realistically attainable. The first strategy deals with the two most important aspects, he said.
“I just don’t think our community is fully aware of the problem that people face in affording housing and why that impacts them, even if they can afford housing,” Fretty said.
“Establishing a non-governmental entity is really one of the first steps in strategy one that hopefully will be supported by the city, the county and the business and philanthropic community, kind of the four pillars of this plan.”
The task force also called on the formation of an educational program, aimed at connecting homeowners, renters and landlords to existing housing-related resources. Some of the resources include:
- Home maintenance repairs
- Financial literacy assistance
- Debt reduction, credit repair and improvement
- Teaching tenant and landlord laws, Section 8 rights, and eviction protection
- Estate planning and title/deed work
No. 2: Help 15,000 households by 2032
Savannah wants to help thousands of people with homeownership, rental assistance or home improvement projects over the next decade.
Beginning in 2022, the task force recommends targeting 1,500 at-risk households a year. “It includes those who are vulnerable of becoming homeless, those who are homeless and transitioning out of homelessness, and those who rent, own and/or are purchasing their homes,” the report states.
This is a 300% increase from the city’s current annual goal of helping 500 households a year.
Residents eligible for help include any household making below $50,000 on multiple incomes, or $35,000 for a single-income household.
Here’s how the breakdown might look:
- Help at least 500 households avoid eviction, homelessness or foreclosure every year.
- Repair and renovate at least 1,000 homes annually to increase quality of life and reduce blight.
- Ensure the 5,000 public housing units are well-maintained and safe.
- Demolish 1,000 blighted or abandoned properties to make way for quality affordable housing to improve and stabilize neighborhood conditions.
The task force assigned several area nonprofits as being responsible for the first action item.
“Through the Pandemic, the United Way of the Coastal Empire, Family Promise of Greater Savannah, the Salvation Army, Economic Opportunity Authority and other organizations along with Georgia Legal Services have gained valuable experience working with households and persons confronted with these challenges.”
The city will lean on its Affordable Housing Fund to pay for repairs and renovations, but the task force recommends further investment in the money pot. The current balance is just under $2 million, most of which has already been committed to projects.
Anita Smith-Dixon, director of Community Housing Services Agency, the nonprofit that operates the fund, said the city has taken an oversized role in funding the balance. She made a plea for the business and philanthropic communities to invest more in the fund, which has helped build 486 affordable housing units in the city.
Smith-Dixon hopes to raise $500,000 from the community for the fund.
The issue of blighted and abandoned properties will be tackled using $10 million in Special-purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, funds. A 2019 survey conducted by the city’s Department of Housing and Neighborhood Services identified 2,600 blighted residential structures — or conditions too unsafe and dilapidated to live in — within a three-mile radius of Forsyth Park. The city hopes to use SPLOST money to demolish the homes, help clear up property ownership issues of the parcels, and redevelop the land for new homes. This work will be done in coordination with the Savannah Land Bank Authority.
No. 3: Invest $100 million annually in housing needs and services by 2032
This one is pretty simple; it’s going to take billions of dollars — public and private — to accomplish the task force’s lofty goals.
“(Funding is) going to be critical to being able to meet some of the goals are in the plan, that doesn’t mean that if you don’t reach all those funding recommendations in the plan, that the plan is dead, that just means that you might have to curtail what you’re able to accomplish annually and over a 10-year period,” Fretty explained.
But the return on investment is sevenfold, the task force found.
“History reveals that every $1 invested helps leverage, on average, $7 additional for housing,” the report states.
The plan begins in 2022 with a $24 million investment and then gradually increases annually to reach the city’s goal by 2032. “Depending upon the activity, investments might range from $500 to more than $200,000 per dwelling or household,” the report explains.
This includes an increased investment in the affordable housing fund, pulling from several sources such as the city, the county, nonprofits, private donations and federal grants. The task force also recommends that city council allocate about $7.5 million of its annual $400 million operating budget for housing projects.
They also call on Chatham County to invest 5% of its property tax base (about $2 million annually) in housing programs by the end of this decade. It suggests the county use that money to help low-income employees purchase homes.
“The City of Savannah, St. Joseph’s/Candler Health Systems, and Memorial Health have already established home purchase down payment and closing cost assistance incentives to help their modest wage employees become Savannah homeowners,” the report explains.
While a majority of Chatham County residents (80%) live in Savannah city limits, the biggest housing growth area is in West Chatham, according to county budget documents. Despite the county’s single-family housing boom, which has led to rising home prices in unincorporated areas, the county has no budget or plan set aside for affordable housing.
Businesses are called to invest the same amount by 2032. Private colleges and universities are not exempt from these expectations.
The task force specifically referenced the Savannah College of Art and Design to invest in the affordable housing fund in an effort to help create workforce housing in and around downtown for the college’s frontline and entry-level workers. The college has been steadily buying up property for years to house its student body, which has also seen steady enrollment growth in recent years.
SCAD has 16 residence halls for its 12,000 undergraduate students. The facilities are embedded throughout the Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods, raising property values and taxes up to 5% a year, according to the college’s own impact study.
“There are many creative ways for businesses to help address the housing needs of their employees and Savannahians,” reads the task force report. “Continued support from major employers and support from additional employers and businesses… is critical to the successful implementation of this Plan.”
Smalls, the co-chair, said the plan should excite all residents, not just those in need of affordable housing. “This is not just the benefit for the person who’s getting the house, it was also uplift the entire community.”
The task force also recommended the city and housing nonprofits begin applying for bonds, grants and other streams of non-governmental funding to support larger capital projects.
In 2027, SPLOST plans call for $12 million to be used for parks and other infrastructure projects. The task force recommends using that money to increase quality of life in neighborhoods through home repairs and community-based green space projects.
No. 4: Increase the number of Housing Savannah stakeholders
The task force urges the city to look at local groups and expand the services they offer related to housing issues.
By leaning on Savannah’s existing network of lending institutions, nonprofits, colleges and civic organizations, the task force said the city just needs to increase capacity and awareness to help more people.
“If we’re going to really raise all this money and do what we need to do, it’s going to take more than the organizations that currently exist working on housing or it’s going to take them beefing up. Or a combination of beefing up and new organizations coming into play,” Fretty said.
This strategy is complicated, and deals with dozens of institutions — existing and recommended — working in tandem to provide homeowners, renters and landlords with resources that range from legal work, home repairs and low-income housing developments.
The outline for who will pay and staff these operations isn’t as clear.
“… expanding capacity and/or creating new Housing Savannah partners will likely result in the need for new staffing and operating cost investments. Where possible, it might be helpful to share staff and office space to avoid costly duplication. Some partners may be able contract for services from other partners to reduce operating expenses.”
No. 5: Support housing-friendly legislation, policy
The need for policies protecting and promoting affordable housing is crucial to the next 10 years of work.
The task force recommends the following :
- The City of Savannah needs to develop and adopt a neighborhood planning tool that helps Housing Savannah identify areas with need.
- Urge the city, county and school board to sell available land it owns for the creation of low- or middle-income housing. Use the sale revenue for the Affordable Housing Fund.
- Incentivize the development of affordable housing by waiving costs and fees associated with building permits, plan reviews, water fines and other construction-related costs charged by the city.
- Create a team of city staff to review and recommend new codes, zoning and ordinances related to housing.
- Research opportunities for inclusionary zoning, which aims to desegregate neighborhoods along race and wealth lines and promote affordable housing policies.
- Look into policy that would help property owners clear up deed-related issues and confusion.
- Establish CAT bus routes to lower-income projects and communities.
There are several state- and federal-level recommendations, including the creation of a statewide housing fund, new urban zoning practices, and adding affordable housing to the state’s definition of “infrastructure.”
One of the task force’s most requested recommendations is to support legislation establishing rent-control policies, similar to cities such as New York City; Oakland, CA; and Washington D.C.
On the federal level, the task force aims to get increased funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other public housing funding streams.
“With this new administration, there seems to be more concern and focus on affordable housing,” Smalls said. “So hopefully, we will get to getting a little bit more federal dollars than we’ve gotten in the last eight to 10 years.”
Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at email@example.com, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.