FOR THOSE seeking solutions to Savannah’s pernicious crime and poverty issues, affordable housing is the hottest topic going.
With rents and property taxes rising around the county and year-long leases turned into vacation rentals, it’s hard enough for anyone to find a decent place to live. Those on public assistance or whose income falls below a basic level have even more difficulty, even if they’re gainfully employed.
The Housing Authority of Savannah was established in 1937 as part of state and federal programming to help the city’s low-income families, seniors and disabled citizens get a roof over their heads. Under the auspices of the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), HAS oversees multiple public housing communities as well as the Section 8 voucher program that allows private landlords to accept subsidized rents. Both programs have waiting lists of hundreds of applicants.
With Congress’ 2012 passage of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, however, HAS and housing authorities around the country are shifting their focus. By employing the Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs), RAD permits those agencies to team up with private developers and investors for vital capital to rehabilitate existing public housing projects and broker new deals, simplifying the financing and administration required to increase lower-than-market housing units.
It’s these kinds of public-private partnerships that initiated the replacement of the now-defunct Hitch Village, a once-foundering public housing property that has been reintroduced as the View at Oglethorpe. The redevelopment of HAS’ Wessels and Blackshear communities will soon offer qualified citizens low rents in safe, stable environments.
But as other HAS properties are evaluated for redevelopment by private (i.e., profit-driven) investors, concerns arise about gentrification and displacing Savannah’s poorer citizens—many of whom are African American—further away from employment and educational opportunities. Particularily, a proposal to build Waters at Gateway, a 276-unit affordable housing complex on Highway 204 near I-95, has garnered criticism for its location far away from downtown’s service-heavy tourism sector and public transportation hubs.
HAS Director of Development Services Kenneth Clark is helping broker the deal between his agency, the City of Savannah and the developers of Atlantic Housing Foundation. A 20-year real estate finance veteran in the public housing sector, including 12 years with the Atlanta Housing Authority, Clark understands the apprehension but acknowledges the necessity of leveraging private investment with public resources. We asked him to help clarify the Waters at Gateway project and what it means to Savannah’s affordable housing future.
Can you give the low-down on this project and its benefits?
Kenneth Clark: Well, it's going to be 276 brand new units, 270 of which are going to be available to those who are at 60 percent and below the local market's average median income. We would have loved for it to be all of the units, but at the end of the day, the math has to make sense.
You're the math guy?
I'm a deal guy. It's my job to help assemble the bond financing and the 4 percent tax credits. HAS issues the tax-exempt bond/loan transaction, but ultimately [government mortgage broker] Freddie Mac will take that obligation to market for investors who want to take advantage of the tax exemption. There are a lot of factors involved, and the cake is still being baked, so to speak [laughs].
Public housing has been changing for many years. HUD realized it could not keep funding the capital needs of public housing units, and with continued cuts it’s not possible to maintain properties and meet the growing need for affordable housing. Public/private partnerships offer creative ways to increase and improve affordable housing units and make it worthwhile for investors.
Not a dime of HAS money is going into this project, but we’re able to structure it in a way that we still have some ownership over it. It’s a hybrid model.
What about the criticism that the location of Waters at Gateway pushes low-income people out of the city?
Look, there is a need for affordable housing. There is also a need for choice. It’s understandable that some people want to be downtown, but concentrating all the affordable housing in one area has been proven not to work. Studies have shown that it increases crime, hopelessness and divestment from an area. We are trying to solve that problem.
People want a different experience for their families. I heard from someone last week who was very excited about the prospect of living out there; it’s safe, the schools are good, and it’s very convenient if someone has a car. But no one will be forced to move there.
This is a dynamic approach that creates more housing and brings an opportunity for people to choose where they want to live. It’s not designed to push people out of existing properties.
Gentrification is real concern for Savannah. Are these public/private partnerships a way to stave it off?
Gentrification is a complex problem that needs to be, and can be, solved. One thing that turns a community around is disposable income. So a little bit of gentrification isn’t necessarily bad—it attracts retail to a neighborhood and elevates quality of life. But there’s a sweet spot where rents are still affordable for the people who have always lived there. The question is, what is the tipping point? How do we find it and maintain these diverse communities?
This work is not easy. It requires a lot of creativity to makes these partnerships work, and it takes a long time to conceive then bring a project to fruition. But it’s worthwhile. Look at Hitch Village—now the View at Oglethorpe: Phase 1 is expected to be completely leased by the end of this year, and Phase 2 will be ready by late spring.
So the folks who have been waiting for housing will get it eventually?
That’s the goal, though as I mentioned, tax reform will present some challenges.
Just be patient. And come to talk to us—we want to have a conversation. We want to do the right thing.