This is the City Talk column by Bill Dawers, a longtime contributor to the Savannah Morning News.
Savannah will be a more resilient city if it can grow from within. New developments on the fringes are inevitable, but they can’t take the place of making better use of properties that are already connected to roads and utilities. Neighborhoods will be more vibrant when there are simply more neighbors to patronize locally owned businesses and keep their eyes on the streets.
The region will also be able to bounce back better from future hurricanes if more residents are living in the older neighborhoods at higher elevations.
Of course, every underutilized property has its own story. Some owners are simply not in a position to make investments, and some are biding their time. Some properties have unclear titles or are tied up in legal disputes.
And some properties end up being owned by the city itself.
At its first meeting of the year, Savannah City Council approved a partnership with the New York-based nonprofit Galvan Foundation, which has committed to the development of affordable housing on 19 properties currently owned by the city in the Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood.
According to reporting in this newspaper by Will Peebles, 18 of those properties are vacant lots, while one is a vacant house. Galvan does not yet have a specific plan regarding the number of units that will eventually be developed.
Cuyler-Brownville isn’t an especially large neighborhood, so the redevelopment of 19 properties and the addition of dozens of residents will have a real impact on the community fabric.
Advocates for affordable housing have reasons to be optimistic about the deal with the Galvan Foundation and other efforts that have grown out of the Housing Savannah Task Force, but vigilance is in order. Consider some other recent history.
City officials targeted 1700 Drayton St. for the development of affordable housing after an arsonist destroyed the Code Compliance Building in May 2020, but the developers have not yet secured the necessary tax credits.
The City of Savannah purchased the former fairgrounds property off Montgomery Street in 2016, but there is still no clear timeline for its development.
For years, the city has owned a two-acre commercial property on Waters Avenue at 36th Street. The site is critical to the revitalization of the Waters corridor and could accommodate housing along with other uses, but significant development seems years away.
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As we head into campaign season, voters should be asking candidates about the properties mentioned in this column and about the city’s broader commitment to affordable housing and infill development.
If the Cuyler-Brownville partnership works out, it could provide a template for the future. New policies could encourage private sector development. The new nonprofit Housing Savannah Inc. could become a critical player in fundraising and advocacy related to affordable housing.
Those efforts will face headwinds, however, so residents will need to pay close attention and demand action in areas that have languished for too long.
Bill Dawers can be reached via @billdawers on Twitter and CityTalkSavannah@gmail.com.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah housing shortage solution is infill on vacant lots, buildings