In Tuesday’s City Talk about The Foram Group’s proposed Starland Village development on Bull Street, I noted that some neighborhood residents are becoming increasingly concerned about gentrification and the need for affordable housing.
I have been writing off and on for many years about the rapid changes in the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods, but a surge of investor interest in the area seems to have gotten more folks’ attention.
The dramatic demographic changes south of Forsyth Park were highlighted again last week with the release of the latest five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
I think that residents are sincere in saying that they want the neighborhood to remain socioeconomically and racially diverse, but that hope will fall by the wayside if no one takes concrete steps.
By the way, I have lived in the neighborhood since buying a home in 1996.
Arguments for affordability
We all know that downtown Savannah has a lot of jobs in restaurants, hotels, bars and retail stores. Many of those jobs pay relatively low wages, but that observation comes with a number of important caveats.
For example, many service industry jobs can generate significant tipped income, offer scheduling flexibility for employees, give opportunities for advancement and provide a toehold in the labor market for unskilled workers.
Also, it’s worth noting that every city in America has low-wage jobs in sectors like leisure and hospitality. We just have a higher percentage than most cities because of robust tourism.
Where should these workers live?
For many years, workers could find relatively inexpensive housing in the neighborhoods south of Forsyth Park, but many residents were effectively forced out because of blight and crime.
Today, however, many low-income neighborhood residents face the pressures of higher housing costs as new residents and investors move into the neighborhood.
We should welcome the new money and the new people, but the current neighborhood diversity will eventually be lost if there are not enough options for low-income households.
Beyond the needs of service industry workers, we should encourage residential density on the high ground in the core of the city, with a variety of transportation options.
This is also a question of community values. If we value our diversity as a community, don’t we want some individual neighborhoods that reflect that diversity?
Current status of affordable housing in Thomas Square
Housing is generally defined as “affordable” if the total cost of rent and utilities is no more than 30 percent of household income.
We could debate the appropriateness of that definition, but it seems reasonable to think that a household with $30,000 in gross annual income should be able to find decent housing for $750 per month, or that a household with $20,000 income should be able to find housing for $500 per month.
Now consider Census tracts 113 and 114, which together include the area bounded by Victory Drive to the south, Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to the west, Park Avenue to the north and variously Price and Habersham streets to the east.
Those boundaries don’t align precisely with recognized neighborhood lines, but the area includes virtually all of the Thomas Square and Metropolitan neighborhoods, which recently merged into one neighborhood association, plus the most southerly blocks of the Victorian district. The area also includes the blocks generally considered as Starland.
According to the estimates released last week by the American Community Survey, white residents comprise a slight majority in both of those Census tracts. As recently as 2000, both tracts had large black majorities.
About 4,600 people live in those two Census tracts, with 40 percent in households with income below the poverty line. The situation is especially dire for families with children.
Within those two Census tracts, approximately 65 percent of renters and even 45 percent of homeowners with mortgages are spending more than 30 percent of income on housing costs.
That’s some ugly math. If current trends remain in place, low income households are going to be squeezed out of the neighborhood.
As I have noted many times before, the city of Savannah actually demolished three dozen affordable housing units in the neighborhood to make room for a planned police precinct.
Without clear incentives requirements to create or support affordable housing in the neighborhood, investors will in most cases try to maximize profits by catering to the upper end of the residential market.
Yes, there are some institutionalized efforts to maintain citizens’ access to quality affordable housing, but if we want to maintain diversity in the city’s core neighborhoods that have a long history of diversity, we need to do much more than we are doing now.
In a future column, I’ll try to take a look at more aggressive efforts in other cities around the country.
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via email@example.com. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.