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Low-income apartment complex draws opposition in Statesboro

Gateway Development Corp. will apply for tax credits to build a low-income apartment complex on Lester Road despite neighborhood opposition and a lack of endorsement by the city of Statesboro, Gateway Development President Thomas Ward said last week.

Ward first came to Statesboro City Council on May 6 seeking a letter of support for a complex, called Newport Trace, that would have been open to low-income families of all ages. It would have included 56 apartments with up to three bedrooms each in two- and three-story buildings. But after hearing from neighbors, the council unanimously voted not to endorse it.

So Ward came to the May 20 meeting with a different plan. The new proposal includes 42 one- and two-bedroom units, all one story, and would be senior housing, limited to people age 55 and older.

"So hopefully it will fit into the neighborhood because most of the units in that area are one-story or maybe one and a half stories," Ward told the council. "On the traffic issue, since it's going to be an elderly complex you will have a lot less traffic. Most of the two-bedroom units are normally one-person rented."

Neighborhood residents such as Britt Bottoms and Jake Hallman, who spoke at the May 6 meeting, had expressed concerns that the previous multistory design, which included 116 bedrooms, would not fit in and would increase traffic in the busy area around Statesboro High School. The five-acre site is across from the school, where Fleming Drive ends.

Zoning is not an issue. The site is already zoned high-density residential. So the council would not have to vote for the project to move forward and receive a building permit.

But Ward had asked for the letter, on his first visit, so that Gateway could use it in applying for a Low Income Housing Tax Credit and HOME Investment Partnership Program funding. These are federal programs administered through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

The Gateway Companies, based in Florence, Alabama, own similar complexes, totaling almost 5,000 units, across the Southeast. They sell the tax credits to banks, insurance companies and other investors to fund the projects.

Last week, Ward, who heads Gateway's development division, said he was no longer seeking a letter of support, merely updating the council about the plans. As he soon saw, neighbors and some members of council were also opposed to the new version.

The Inglewood Condominium Association sent Mayor Jan Moore and City Council members a letter, dated May 20 and signed by the association's president, Kathleen Kosmoski. It was an updated version of a letter that had been read to the council two weeks earlier.

"Any type of development should not occur just because it meets the zoning codes," Kosmoski wrote. "A development should be built because it will improve the neighborhood and Statesboro as a whole."

In the letter, Kosmoski suggested that traffic flow, stormwater runoff and flooding, occupancy rates of existing low-income developments and the effect on housing values and crime rates needed to be researched. Then she asserted that the proposed Newport Trace "is a negative thing for the neighborhood as a whole."

Attracting the poor

Councilman Phil Boyum asked Ward how Gateway chose Statesboro for this project. The company, Ward said, has two projects in Pooler and "arm-length waiting list for people to live in elderly units and apartment units with affordable rents."

But when Boyum asked where those people live, Ward admitted that he has a waiting list for Pooler, not Statesboro. So Boyum speculated that the people waiting in Pooler might move here.

"That's fine, they'd have a place to live but, at the same time, we're having struggles with attracting certain types of businesses, certain types of retail because of our income mix, and if we're attracting low-income people to town to live in these developments, we're putting additional burdens on our citizens," Boyum said.

Ward asked, "Are you saying that your town is against the low-income people?"

"No," Boyum answered. But he added that he had talked to a manager of an existing low-income complex for seniors and learned she received calls from prospective residents in other states.

"What I'm getting at is, that brings low-income folks here and drags down our per-capita income, it drags down our household income," he said. "And when we're trying to attract businesses and those types of things, yes, we have additional population, but we have more low-income, which creates additional problems."

But Councilman Gary Lewis said he visits Grace Crossing and Laurel Pointe, existing low-income complexes for seniors, and does not see problems in them.

"We need to understand one thing, there's more poor people than there's rich," Lewis said. "If we go to telling people who can come in and who can't come in, there's the problem right there. These are American people. They've got the right to try to have a place to live."

Empty apartments

Two weeks earlier, the crux of the discussion hadn't been rich versus poor, but the idea that Statesboro already has a surplus of low-income apartments and empty housing in general.

"In my district, we've got a lot of half-empty, low-income housing that has not been well-maintained," Boyum had said.

That was before the made the motion, seconded by Councilman Travis Chance, to oppose endorsing the project.

In her letter, Kosmoski had noted "an abundance of already available low-income (and) subsidized housing in the area, with five developments totaling over 300 units within a half-mile radius of the proposed location."

Also on May 6, Moore suggested the problem is citywide.

"We as a city have struggled with empty housing, and as we've had student housing grow, we've seen apartment complexes that have been left unfilled, which has resulted in degradation of those properties," she said.

Last week, Ward said in a phone interview that the purpose of the tax credits is to provide an alternative to substandard housing, so an abundance of total housing is not necessarily an argument against building more.

The project as now planned will cost about $4.5 million to build, he said. Monthly rents would be $300-350 for one-bedroom and $400-450 for two-bedroom apartments. To qualify for the tax credits, owners promise to rent the apartments at a rate based on 60 percent of the area's median income.

The company will apply for the credits without a letter of support from the city, which would have been helpful but is not necessary, he said.

"It's an option. They allow you to go in and try to do what the city would like, and if you get their support, they like it better," Ward said. "But it's not necessary, no."

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

 

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