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Editor's Note: A city in search of affordable housing

IN LAST WEEK’S issue I wrote a short piece about a new upscale apartment complex set to go up in the burgeoning "Canal District" in West Savannah.

Though I felt it was a newsworthy story, candidly I thought few people would read the piece or be interested in it.

However, it turned out to strike a chord of interest and deep concern, judging by the online analytics.

The main concern is a sense that Savannah is rapidly gentrifying out of control, with a surplus of high-end housing popping up when maybe what we really need more of is affordable housing.

Most commenters shared sentiments along the lines of, “Where are all the people coming from who can afford this kind of rent?”

For many observers, the math doesn’t seem to add up.

According to ABODO, the median one-bedroom rent in Savannah spiked ten percent just from November to December, up to nearly $900 a month — one of the fastest-rising rental rates in the country.

To be fair, $900 a month still pales in comparison to the jaw-dropping current one-bedroom median rents in Charleston and Nashville — $1300 a month and $1500 a month, respectively.

But Charleston and Nashville both have sizzling economies with a more robust jobs picture than here, both in availability and in median income.

You really wonder, as is often the case, if Savannah can keep up with its own notion of itself.

The 703 Louisville development mentioned in the piece -- for which a historic railroad depot which once housed Muse Arts Warehouse will be demolished -- will be nearly 250 units. The nearby 630 Indian Street apartment complex will be nearly 300 units. That’s about 500 new top-dollar units, just between two developments.

That’s not even considering what’s being planned on the other side of downtown, at Eastern Wharf, which is envisioned as literally a whole new downtown in and of itself.

Will the jobs be there to fill all the upscale housing? What happens if not?

Does downtown Savannah become one big affluent retirement community instead of a magnet for millennial creatives? Or do the upscale apartments quickly morph into student housing -- ironically the original plan for the 703 Louisville site?

To a certain extent, our residential boom is just mirroring a similar boom in many American cities right now. The U.S. economy is generally quite robust, and developers sense a green light for investment, here as elsewhere.

The current style of modernist high-rise apartment buildings, often trendily named simply for the street address, is a template you can see right now popping up in nearly identical fashion all across the Sun Belt.

In the Southeast region, nearly 80 percent of all new apartments built in 2017 are considered luxury rentals!

Nationally, nearly 90 percent of all large-scale apartment buildings completed in the first half of 2018 were high-end!

Some Southern markets — Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, and Nashville chiefly come to mind — can support that kind of investment. Others you wonder about.

The recent announcement of a new Wayfair facility in West Chatham, promising 1,000 jobs at or above living wage, is certainly welcome and would contribute to investors’ bullishness about Savannah.

But there’s another statistic to keep in mind: Nearly 15 percent of Savannah workers are in the comparatively low-paying hospitality industry. For many of them, $900 a month for rent can be a crippling figure. Overall, the city remains at a nearly 30 percent poverty rate.

The even bigger national picture, of course, has to do with what one might call the reversal of “White Flight.”

All over the United States, investors — or to put it bluntly, white people — are moving back to long-neglected city centers, driving up rents, property values, and property taxes, and driving out longtime residents who can no longer afford to keep up with the rapid economic change.

Where are the displaced residents going? In many cities, Savannah included, they are, perhaps ironically, moving out to the suburbs.

This dramatic paradigm shift is not only having economic effects, it’s having political effects as well. The rapidly changing demographics of American suburbs are part of what led to sweeping Democratic gains last month all over the country.

For example, the once staunchly red suburban counties ringing Atlanta — Newt Gingrich’s old stomping grounds — are now a nearly solid swath of blue.

As former Savannah Mayor Floyd Adams Jr. predicted over a decade ago, such an economics-driven population shift is happening locally as well.

Many of our current elected officials, however, don’t seem to be as prescient.

In the piece I wrote about 703 Louisville, Alderman Van Johnson expressed concerns that the city isn’t doing enough to encourage affordable housing.

“I’m concerned about the ability of people on normal salaries to live there. Market-rate housing can be quite high and I’m concerned about that, and remain concerned that we don’t have places within the city core for folks to live,” Johnson said.

And quite rightly so. Johnson is not alone in these concerns.

But a cynic might respond that it is Johnson himself who is arguably the most ardent advocate of new development and gentrification in that area, the planned new Arena and “Canal District” being located within his own First District.

The rub of course, is when does much-needed economic development turn into gentrification?

When does development become overdevelopment?

What is the proper role of government?

Johnson brought up the idea of rent control, but that will be a hard sell in Georgia, where rent control remains illegal.

The City of Savannah can’t reliably control speeding on 52nd Street, so I seriously doubt they have what it takes to help pass rent control in a deep South state.

Even if such a political and legal effort were eventually successful, by that time many if not most of these new developments will already be built out, have tenants in place, and probably be grandfathered in.

There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of affordable housing. To me, it does begin with addressing jobs, and therefore addressing poverty.