Rich and poor on same restored Victorian block? Savannah, restoration 'cradle' of US, rebuilds with an eye on economic mix

In Savannah, "the cradle of American restoration," an alliance between preservation groups and city government is trying to overcome prevalent theories about restoration and what often is seen as the inevitable displacement of low-income residents.

They are showing that urban renewal and low-income housing do not necessarily mean bulldozing neighborhoods and constructing cheap, bland housing. And they want to prove that an old Victorian home, restored to mint condition, can house the poor just as well as it can the rich, and to show that well-to-do people can live side by side with poor people in equally charming homes.

Savannah has taken its preservation seriously for the past 25 years, and it has turned its antebellum center city from a deserted shambles into a populated tourist mecca.

But outside the city's center, Savannah's Victorian neighborhood, once the home of the city's middle class, is still largely a drab, rat-infested slym owned by absentee landlords. Most of the big two- and three-story wooden homes have been split into apartments to hold as many people as possible.

Walking down the tree-shades streets, one can see the potential for restoration is there.The houses, with their sweeping front porches, bay windows, balconies, turrets and artistic trim, are quite appealing.

Restoration is an expensive business, however, and to refurbish the Victorian homes and then rent them at a cost low enough for the original inhabitants to afford seemed an unsolvable problem.

The remedy came via complex combination of federal grants and subsidies and someone with enough drive and energy to obtain the financing and the approval of the city government.

That man was Lee Adler, a fifth-generation Savannah resident who is an executive in an investment banking firm. Despite his house on fashionable Bull Street, Mr. Adler is not a stereotypical Southern aristocrat. He moves fast, he talks fast, and he is enthusiastic about the restoration project. He was president of Historic Savannah, the city'c chief restoration group, and now he's chairman of Savannah Landmark, a group formed to save the Victorian neighborhood.

White old homes were torn down in other cities in favor of new development, Savannah Landmark came up with its own solution.

Starting with no money of its own, it began in 1978 to buy dilapidated Victorian homes at abour $5,000 for each apartment in them, borrowing the money from local lenders. Each restoration costs about $22,000 -- money obtained from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development through loans at 3 percent interest.

Work began on more than 65 housing units that first year. Labor was supplied by 26 federally funded. CETA workers who were taught on-the-job restoration skills.

As each building was completed, Savannah Landmark became a housing authority to rent out the restored homes. Rents were kept low enough for poor people to afford enough another HUD subsidy.

The federal government pays the difference between a fair market value for the rent and a quarter of the tenant's income. Thus, if the rent were $200 a month, and the resident only earned $200 a month, he would pay $50 for the apartment and the federal government would pay the other $150.

If the resident's income increases, the subsidy declines. But the resident is not evicted from the apartment if his income becomes too high, Mr. Adler said , which is what happens in most federal housing projects.

Planned this year are reconstruction of another 100 housing units, and Savannah Landmark recently bought out the largest slumlord in the Victorian section to add another 400 apartments to its inventory for future work.

Not all Savannah Landmark's homes are being restored in the same area. After a year's work, bright patches of color on homes or rows of homes are spotted throughout the Victorian district.

"The idea is to scatter a few of them on every block," Mr. Adler said. "In that way, you could drive through the neighborhood and never know which ones were subsidized and which ones weren't.

"This program will help those low-income residents to stay in their homes," he said, "but it will also encourage other private enterprise in the neighborhood. It should create a widely diverser area with an economic and cultural mix."

But will middle class and wealthy people choose to live side by side with low income people who depend on government rent subsidies?

"The jury is still out on whether people are going to live together," said John Hayes, director of Historic Savannah. "But we do have a significant amount of interest in the neighborhood, and Savannah has a considerable track record for that kind of thing."

"There still is a lot of slum mixed in with showplaces," he said, "but the momentum is here."

And do the poor enjoy refurbished Victorian homes as much as the rich? Or do renovated homes deteriorate as quickly as public housing projects have in many cities?

"We've had no turnover in tenants and few maintenance problems in the buildings that have been occupied for about a year," said Loy Veal, Savannah Landmark's director. "We've had much less maintenance problem than your average suburban apartment complex."

Savannah Landmark is now about ready to export its ideas to other preservation groups and city governments throughout the nation.

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