Statesboro’s city government has not imposed a moratorium on construction of new apartment complexes but may instead order a housing study and fund initiatives to promote construction of more single-family homes.
That was the direction indicated by City Manager Charles W. Penny in comments to the City Council and mayor during their April 21 work session on multiple topics. Last November, District 4 Councilman John Riggs called for a moratorium on construction of new apartment complexes, but the council received further information in subsequent meetings and has not acted on that request.
For years now, various Statesboro officials have expressed alarm at the disproportionate share apartments and rental houses hold in the university town’s housing mix, especially while new apartments continued to be built.
In Georgia, 63.1% of housing units are owner-occupied, according to 2014-2018 U.S. Census Bureau survey data. So renters occupy less than 37% of all residences in use statewide.
But Statesboro’s home ownership rate is dramatically lower, and renters are the majority here. Penny cited a 2018 count showing that owner-occupied homes made up only 24.5% of Statesboro’s approximately 12,239 total housing units while tenant-occupied, rental units made up 62.9%. Subtracting apparently vacant units and those of unknown occupancy status from the total leaves a ratio of about 28% known owner-occupied to 72% known renter-occupied residences.
“So, the concern as we look at our community is, what things can we do to start to change that,” Penny said. “Well, one, I think it’s going to be awfully hard, because when you bring 18,500 students into your community, if they all don’t stay on campus, they’re going to be in the community, and that’s an important part of our economy.”
The student market
Of Georgia Southern’s total enrollment of 26,054 students last fall, 18,252 attended classes in-person on the Statesboro campus, according to the University System of Georgia’s 2019 enrollment report. But only 3,950 students lived in on-campus housing here before the COVID-19 pandemic move-out in March. Many of the others resided in off-campus apartments in and near the city limits.
Also for several years now, city officials have observed that students tend to flock to the newest apartment complexes. This leads to vacancies and declining revenue at older complexes, Statesboro Apartment Association members pointed out when they spoke in opposition to a zoning change in autumn 2018 for construction of a $50 million private complex.
Planned to replace the old University Plaza shopping center across Georgia Avenue from the GS campus, University Place would include 464 beds in 116 apartments in four stories atop a commercial ground floor, if built. City Council granted the zoning change 17 months ago, but the project has not proceeded beyond the issuance of a demolition permit last fall.
Room for 3,065 more
Currently, no new multi-family housing complexes are under construction in Statesboro. There are about 4,000 apartment units within the city limits already, and these contain perhaps 9,000 or 10,000 bedrooms, Penny said.
But with the city’s existing ordinances, many more apartments could be built without the plans coming before City Council or even the city Planning Commission for approval. Penny showed the council a map dotted with areas zoned R-4, where apartments could be built without any zoning change or variance.
These areas provide room for potentially 3,065 apartment units, he reported. If all those were built out, Statesboro would contain more than 7,000 apartments.
“Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not judging that at all,” Penny said. “However, the way the process works right now, with this zoning, if a developer comes forward and they want to build on these areas that are zoned for apartments, you never get to see that, the planning board won’t get to see that, because it’s zoned that way. They present the plan, and that’s it. They move forward.”
He later added that when he saw the city’s zoning rules and the number of potential apartments, he realized that the elected officials “have every right to be concerned.”
Penny said that newly hired city Planning and Development Director Kathy Field will help review the situation before they report back to the council in 60 days.
As officials look to change the homeowner to renter ratio, the real question should be, “How do we increase home ownership in Statesboro?” Penny suggested.
“When we look at home ownership, we can’t just be talking about middle- and upper-income people, we’ve got to talk about all levels of the economy, workforce housing and things of that nature,” he said.
Last year, Statesboro was accepted as a participant in a three-year cohort of the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing. A housing team, named from community organizations and the city government, is expected to participate in GICH-sponsored training sessions and develop a housing plan.
Speaking to the elected officials, Penny also noted that the city had received a proposal in January from Bleakly Advisory Group, a consulting firm based in Atlanta, to do a study of housing in Statesboro. He recommended that the council order the study, which Bleakly proposes to complete in 16 weeks for $38,500.
Last week’s work session was not a voting meeting, and Mayor Jonathan McCollar said the study proposal would be placed on the agenda for the first meeting in May.
Penny also announced that he will propose incentives to increase construction of single-family homes in Statesboro and request funding in the fiscal year 2021 city budget, which opens July 1.
“Currently we have a lot of developments that occur outside the city limits, and we’d like for some of that to happen inside the city limits so as people are looking for housing options … if they like new construction, they can have that option inside our city,” he said.
Penny said these incentives would be for subdivision-type development and will include fee waivers.
As for the idea of a moratorium, he noted that right now, there are no apartment complexes in the planning process in Statesboro.
“With the way our economy is going right now, I’d be surprised if you saw a big project come forward in the next four months,” Penny said. “I’d be happy if you did, but I’d be surprised.… Putting a moratorium on apartments, or even single-family homes, is a hard thing to do.”
In a call Monday, McCollar said he supports conducting a study and taking other steps.
“We’ve got to really look at this because we have a whole bunch of apartments but we don’t have enough housing for the working class and individuals that want that middle-class housing as well. …,” he said, “and before we jump out and make too many decisions, I’m a person that likes to listen to experts, and so I fully support some people coming in and taking an unbiased look at our situation.”