Friday, January 23, 2015

Covington, Georgia, pilots controversial program to revitalize its suburbs

By Amanda Gold, National Housing Conference

Originally approved in 2003 and planned to have 249 homes on large lots, the Walker’s Bend subdivision in Covington, Georgia stalled in 2007. With 79 homes built and only 50 sold, Developer Timber went bankrupt and left behind 160 empty lots and abandoned homes. Shortly thereafter, home values fell and crime rates increased. City planning director Randy Vinson has implemented a controversial plan to save Walker’s Bend, and the city of Covington will be the master developer.

Successes of Covington’s plan
  • Renovation of existing homes: in a 4-2 vote, the city council approved the purchase of the empty lots and partnered with Habitat for Humanity to renovate eight townhouses that had fallen into disrepair.
    • Elimination of vacant lots
    • Provision of affordable housing: for low income residents, the city constructed 32 single-family homes and built a three-story apartment building with an additional 28 units. Next door, the city constructed a 26-unit apartment building for people with disabilities.
    • Budgetary Success: by the time Walker’s Bend is completed, the city expects to have made a profit of about $500,000.
    Community criticism
    • Existing residents are disgruntled by the influx of low-income residents.
    • Some community members have complained that low-income residents are responsible for increased crime in the area. NHC was unable to find data to show crime trends over the past ten years.
    • Some residents also complain about the increase in residential density because of the apartment construction.
    • However, the city’s plan isn’t limited to low-income housing. Market-rate homeownership units are planned along with other projects, but the lengthy process of acquiring funding has slowed construction. 
      Policy implications
      • Walker’s Bend provides an example of when a long-term strategy is necessary for neighborhood recovery, as well as how a distressed suburban neighborhood can provide an opportunity to create a number of other positive changes like inclusionary housing policy, a mixed income neighborhood and a more sustainable development pattern.
      • Walker’s Bend also reveals some of the implementation struggles that a long-term strategy can face. Specifically this case shows that changing the development plan for an existing neighborhood, originally designed as market rate single family detached units to be a denser mixed income neighborhood, incurred neighborhood concern and community disapproval.
      • Did expectations about what the neighborhood was supposed to look like exacerbate community backlash?
      • Can inclusionary neighborhoods be a successful way to stabilize suburban neighborhoods?
      • Can local government play a master developer role like Covington?
      • What kinds of community engagement strategies could be deployed to build support for these changes? NHC’s Communications HUB can be a resource for communities looking for messaging strategies for dealing with a changing neighborhood like Walker’s Bend.
      Cities across America are grappling with the challenge posed by distressed suburban communities in the wake of the housing crisis. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, policy leaders and those in community development would do well to consider the lessons learned in Covington.

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