Statesboro council members did not vote down City Manager Charles Penny’s recommendation for a professional housing study Tuesday. But they said it will have to wait until the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on the local economy are addressed or at least understood.
The concern about the use and growth of multifamily housing in Statesboro was reflected in District 4 Councilman John Riggs’ call last fall for a moratorium on permitting for new apartment complexes. In January, Bleakly Advisory Group, an Atlanta-based consulting company, sent Statesboro officials a proposal in do a study of citywide rental housing supply and demand, with a comparison to other cities, for $38,500.
At a work session with the mayor and council in April, Penny said he would recommend the study, and also incentives for construction of single-family homes, instead of an apartment moratorium. At this point no apartment complexes are in the permitting process anyway.
The first person to talk about the study proposal during Tuesday’s 9 a.m. regular council meeting was actually a former council member, Sam Jones. He represented District 2 for four years, until he was replaced by current Councilwoman Paulette Chavers, who outpolled him in the November city election. But they came down on the same side concerning the study proposal Tuesday.
“I see that at this time you’re considering having a study by Bleakly Advisory Group, which I think is a great idea,” said Jones, who signed up to speak during public-comments time. “However, there has been a study done in the past that shows that right now about 80% of the citizens of Statesboro are renters.”
City Council actually allows two times for public comments during each regular meeting, early in the meeting for specific items on the agenda and later for general topics. Jones spoke during the first opportunity.
“There’s a need for single-family homes,” he continued. “My suggestion to the mayor and council members is that they take this money, maybe add something to it … as the state is doing, as assistance with a down payment … to help our citizens become homeowners.”
Specifically, Jones suggested the city use the $38,500 to start a matching fund for a state program that assists first-time homebuyers.
As proposed, the Bleakly study would not evaluate housing needs in the way that the local Georgia Initiative for Community Housing team will, Penny acknowledged when he presented the agenda item. Last year, Statesboro was accepted into a three-year cohort of GICH communities. Each has named its own team, including volunteers from various organizations, to participate in training sessions and develop a housing improvement plan.
“This study is not designed to address the GICH community, those housing needs,” Penny said. “That’s not at all what this is designed to do. But for Statesboro, multi-family housing is a significant part of our economy. … The Bleakly study will look at our existing dimensions, but the Bleakly study will also compare our community to similar communities in Georgia so we know where we stand.”
Owner-occupied homes were not mentioned in Bleakly’s proposal, which referred to “rental housing” throughout. Penny suggested asking the company whether a “comprehensive housing analysis,” needed for the GICH program and certain grant applications, could be added to the study.
The $38,500 would have come from the city’s general fund, where enough money remained from the current fiscal year’s budget, he told the council. The study was to be completed in 16 weeks.
Chavers on timing
Chavers said she thought the study would be necessary but that she had one concern.
“My concern is the timing of the study, and why I say that is, we’re not out of the woods with this COVID-19,” Chavers said. “Small businesses are just coming alive. Well, they’re not even alive; they’re still pretty much dead. Do we want to spend $38,000 on a company to come in to do a study?”
She suggested using the money to help small businesses that are struggling.
“I just feel like those funds could be used to empower people in the city and that we can put this on the back burner and it can be brought up at another time,” Chavers said.
District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack also said she thought the study was needed but that the time was not right.
District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr noted that the company made the proposal in January, “pre-COVID” and that five-year predictions were proposed.
“”They don’t have a crystal ball, I mean, nobody can do that right now. …,” Barr said. “Let’s tell them we’ll come back to them and ask them to do a proposal when we know specifically what we need for (the comprehensive analysis), as well as some of what they’re offering.”
Eventually, all five council members agreed that the study could wait. Mayor Jonathan McCollar started to request a motion to disapprove, but District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum asked that he not do that because it could block the proposal from being brought back for six months.
Asked about this later, City Attorney Cain Smith said the one rule he is aware of requiring a six-month wait for reconsideration applies only to zoning decisions. But at any rate, no motion was made and no vote taken.
City budgeting soon
Penny’s proposal for incentives for single-family housing is entirely separate from the now-postponed study. He plans to incorporate funding for the incentives into the proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, he said after Tuesday’s meeting.
He suggested that the council hold open-door work sessions on the budget May 20, 21, 27 and 28, from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.