Statesboro is one of seven finalist communities vying to become Georgia Initiative for Community Housing participants this year, city officials announced Tuesday. Five communities will be selected as “freshman” GICH participants after site visits next month.
The GICH, operated by the University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, is a three-year program in which a team from each selected community participates in two multi-day training and information retreats each year and develops a community housing plan.
Although the initiative does not provide funding directly, it helps communities qualify for grants and low-interest loans from state and federal sources for housing improvements. Statesboro’s team has identified 179 homes in five neighborhoods as “dilapidated, distressed or deteriorated.”
“We did receive word today that we have advanced in the application process,” Assistant City Manager Jason Boyles told City Council. “We’re one of the seven finalists, to be narrowed down to five after they conduct the site visit next month. So we’re excited about that, and we’ve got work to do.”
Mayor Jonathan McCollar sought the council’s backing in June for the city to serve as fiscal agent for the GICH application but emphasized that it would require support from the community, not the city alone. He has since been meeting with the team made up of representatives of the local banking, real estate and construction sectors, the schools and nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, the Housing Authority and the United Way, as well as city staffers and a county commissioner.
“I do want to commend the staff on the work that they’ve done to get us here,” McCollar said. “Guys, it was a competitive process, and South Fulton, Macon, there were really big communities that really went after this, and our staff was able to best them.”
Along with the carrot of possible funding for housing upgrades, the announcement at Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting revived consideration of a stick in the form of blight tax on abandoned properties.
GICH in context
A four- or five-member GICH evaluation team is scheduled to visit Statesboro for an hour and a half on Sept. 17.
The GICH staff’s email Tuesday to Boyles and City Planner II Owen Dundee did not provide a count of how many communities applied or identify the other six finalists. A call to GICH Director Jermaine Durham’s office and an email to the program assistant did not result in a reply by press time Wednesday.
The GICH website states that 71 Georgia communities have benefited from the program since 2005. The site lists five “freshmen” communities, five “sophomore,” or second-year, communities and six “junior” communities currently enrolled.
Dundee had submitted Statesboro’s application July 26.
It maps five neighborhoods where the team identified distressed or dilapidated housing, but two of them, the “MLK” and “Johnson Street” neighborhoods, overlap to form one large area on the west side of town. The more compact “Mulberry Street” and “Black Bottom” areas are east of South Main Street and downtown, while the Whitesville community is in northeastern Statesboro.
The Statesboro GICH team counted distressed properties through a “windshield survey,” with members looking at the homes from the street, and was not based on close inspections.
Another problem is Statesboro’s low level of home ownership, the team indicated in the application. In 2000, owner-occupied homes made up 28 percent of all housing units in Statesboro, but by 2016, owner-occupied homes made up just 19 percent of the local housing mix, the application states.
“Housing occupation continues to shift toward a greater percentage of renters and fewer homeowners,” it states, noting that a growing college-student population has been the focus of recent construction and repurposing of homes.
However, it was the dilapidated housing aspect that kept coming up during Tuesday’s meeting.
Speaking during public comments time, Jerry Ann Weaver, a 37-year resident of Morris Street, asked the city to do something about a neighboring house she said has sat vacant and deteriorating more than 10 years.
“My concern is, if the owner is not going to fix it, why not condemn it,” she said.
In response, the mayor noted the pending GICH program application and the count of 179 distressed homes.
“That is a tremendous problem for the city,” McCollar said. “So the program that we’re working to get in is going to help us get some funding that’s going to allow us to address that issue. The council has been working diligently to address this issue, so please do not think that your conversation is falling on deaf ears. We have been proactive in this.”
He also talked about holding a city cleanup day. District 2 Councilman Sam Jones thanked Weaver for her patience.
District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum then renewed his March request for the council to enact a “blight tax” ordinance, which would multiply the city property tax rate on vacant, dilapidated homes until owners take steps to improve them, and would cut the tax after improvements are made. City Attorney Cain Smith drafted an ordinance last spring, but Boyum had agreed to let it rest while the city applied for GICH membership.
“I would like that bring that forward and put it on the agenda for the next meeting and look at it with the understanding that should we become a (GICH participant) that they may make some adjustments to it, but I think it would allow our code enforcement, our staff, to start moving forward and taking care of the most extreme examples that we have,” Boyum said.
His motion to have Smith present the draft at the next meeting passed 5-0.
Boyles reminded the council that the city is currently without a planning and development director and noted that the two code enforcement officer positions are also vacant.
The mayor and all five council members were present, but City Manager Charles Penny and his wife have been on a trip to France that was planned before he was hired here. He is expected back at City Hall by the end of the week.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.