Monday, April 13

Two innovative policies from Charleston and Savannah

As I mentioned before, I've just returned from a reconnaissance mission (ok, more of a vacation) in two great southern cities, Charleston and Savannah. I'd like to share two interesting policies these towns have initiated, in order to deal with specific problems they have faced. Both policies are relatively new, and, as far as I can tell, completely without precedent in the United States. I imagine that other cities with similar concerns will be interested to see whether these ideas have worked.

1. Vacation Homes in Charleston

The old homes in downtown Charleston have come a long way since they were considered slums in the 1930s. For the last couple of decades, they have been purchased and renovated in droves, bringing many new residents downtown. However, as property values began to rise, the vitality started to drain as the homes were increasingly bought up by out-of-towners looking for an historic "trophy home" to visit once or twice a year. According to the Historic Charleston Foundation,

"Sections of the historic district began to change from healthy neighborhoods full of children and activity into sterile environments, which were beautiful to see, yet devoid of real people living there on a full-time basis."

I asked my wife the same question as we walked down the picturesque streets, "I wonder how many of these houses are lived in?"

The Foundation decide to act. They already had extensive experience with the use of historic preservation easements, so they decide to create a "Primary Residency Easement." This is a voluntary deed-restriction that requires the homeowner to spend a set number of days in the home a year. According to the New York Times, the mayor was pushing it, but it's not clear to me that any public investment has been made.

These easements are estimated to drop the market value of the house by about 20%, but if the owner has no intention of leaving, this drop has the benefit of potentially decreasing the property tax assessment for the year. As intriguing as this idea is, the Foundation only lists one house with such an easement. It looks like some more carrots might be necessary to give it a fair shake.

2. Church parking lots in Savannah

The Savannah Development and Renewal Authority was created in 1992 to "renew, revitalize, and beautify distressed areas of Savannah." A couple of years ago, the SDRA began partnering with local churches to help them develop underutilized parking lots into affordable housing or other community services. Planetizen picked up on this approach last year, which is where I first heard of it.

The churches in the program can form Community Development Corporations CDCs to receive federal funding for land uses that benefit the surrounding neighborhood. Faith-based CDCs have been established for years all around the country, but the approach Savannah has taken toward the specific issue of church parking lots is interesting to me. Perhaps churches and local governments alike can pick up lessons from this intitiative in how to meet the special parking needs that urban churches face in a mutually beneficial way.

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