There’s been a lot of conversation about downtown Augusta being designated a “slum,” so the city could borrow cheap money to remodel the Municipal Building. Critics are missing the point. Bigger fish are ready for frying.
Augusta’s city center, which encompasses ZIP code 30901, lost 25 percent of its population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. That represents 5,481 people who just packed up and moved elsewhere. Most of them were African-Americans who abandoned their cultural and historic ties to the city center.
WHAT IS LEFT behind is an aging, poorly educated population that suffers an unemployment rate more than twice the state rate. At the same time these people have fewer housing options, because 18 percent of the available housing stock disappeared. The number of owner-occupied dwellings declined 21 percent, and the inventory of rental properties shrank 19 percent.
Laudably, there is another effort to change that. The city most recently put its hopes along with millions of dollars into a project that covers two of the neighborhoods in 30901 – Laney/Walker and Bethlehem.
But the neighborhood decline waits for no one. The city’s Consolidated Plan says that, over the next five years, Laney/Walker and Bethlehem “are both projected to lose more than 10 percent of their current populations.”
The project focus to date has been on public investments from the city of Augusta; the Augusta Housing Authority; Georgia Regents University; the special-purpose local option sales tax,; Opportunity Zone and Enterprise Zone tax incentives; and nonprofits subsidized through the city’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program funds.
The bulk of the city’s direct participation is from $750,000 a year in room taxes, which works out to $37.5 million more in public funds over the next 50 years. Rather than spend the money as it comes in, the city is borrowing against future collections. By next year, more than a quarter of the money will be gone in just the first six years.
With the first $8 million, the city has invested heavily in consultants, bought a lot of land and constructed 18 houses. Yes, that works out to $420,000 for a house that sells for less than half that, plus is packaged with additional subsidies for homebuyers.
IT’S CLEAR THAT if the focus is on construction, the pace and capacity have to pick up dramatically. The city’s own consultant identified almost 1,100 buildings that currently are in poor, dilapidated and deteriorated condition in Laney/Walker-Bethlehem. Another 385 are listed in fair condition. Add to those numbers the hundreds of demolitions that are now unkempt vacant lots.
These numbers are staggering, and we’re swimming against a strong current. Even if you took the remaining $29.5 million in room taxes and built houses at the cost of $100,000 each, you’d only have 295 houses, and that’s over the life of a 50-year program. Leverage a few more apartments and houses and you might get up to 600 or 700 – still a long way from a finish line that is constantly moving.
My experience with HUD in rebuilding cities after Hurricane Katrina shows me that these are long-term initiatives. They are accomplished with bold political leadership and massive infusion of private capital. Augusta seems to recognize this, because on the website for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem project is the claim that each public dollar will be leveraged “with 10 private investment dollars.” That would mean $375 million in private funds. But, now city leadership describes that as “an aspirational goal,” saying the actual match is more like 7-to1. However, new figures provided by the city show that after six years, the match is not even 1-to 1.
For the city of Augusta to be strong and viable, it needs a thriving city center with a strong blend of public-private investments. So how do we get there?
Attack the issue in a fully transparent manner. This is too serious for platitudes and fuzzy information. Public confidence is critical if you want private investors to put their skin in the game. Use every tool at your disposal; leave nothing on the table.
Have a well-articulated plan for a renaissance across the center city, not just two neighborhoods. Blight is spreading and waits for no one. Contain it!
CREATE AN environment for the private sector to rebuild the housing stock for those 58 percent of the people who want to be homeowners, and have a market-driven option for the 42 percent who prefer to rent.
Identify your private-sector partners. Secure public letters of commitment from them. Show exactly how each of the dollars the city and other public entities spend is indeed bringing in 10 new dollars from private sources.
Over the past several years, the city has spent millions of dollars of state and federal funds to reverse the tsunami of blight and neglect in ZIP code 30901. Every bit helps, but clearly the efforts to date have not had significant impact. They have not “changed the game.”
And it doesn’t help that the director of the city’s housing office complains about the press coverage he’s getting, when he’s paying a marketing firm $6,000 a month to create good PR. Chester Wheeler shouldn’t blame news media; he should fire his PR consultant if he’s so unhappy.
What we look for now is a 50-year plan that is a real game-changer. The evidence will not be in the few hundred houses that are built in two of many substandard neighborhoods. No, the evidence will be the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow from a private sector that has renewed confidence to invest in our city center – and beyond.
(The writer is a former mayor of Augusta; a former regional director for the Atlanta Region of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and as HUD’s acting assistant deputy secretary for field policy and management.)