Diane Washington came home from work to a letter taped to her door.
The Iraqi War veteran has lived for 25 years at the Clearview Apartments, a low-income complex north of U.S. 80 in West Savannah. She’s celebrated college graduations and birthdays and holidays with her mother, twin sister and aunt, all of whom used to live in the complex with her. Now, she’s the only one of her family left in the duplex-style cinderblock homes. What she found taped to her door informed her no more Washingtons would be left on the property by year’s end.
“Dear Diane Washington,
With the upcoming new development that will soon be happening, we are providing you with an official 60-day notice to vacate your apartment located at 401 Carolan Street… You will be expected to vacate your apartment on or before October 31, 2021. This process is necessary in order for Cardinal Capital Management to begin development of new work force housing. Once development has been completed, you are more than welcome to re-apply for housing within the community.”
The Savannah native knew this day was coming. She just thought residents would have more time.
“We need an extension. We diligently paid our rent all the way up until September,” said Washington, her voice low and scratchy. A gold chain hangs from her neck, holding the circular insignia of the International Longshoremen’s Association.
“And so we just feel we bamboozled, because you all continuously collected our rent and now you’re telling us we have 60 days to vacate?”
Washington is one of about 90 people left at Clearview. A mix of Blacks, whites and Hispanics, blue-collar workers and retirees, families and single people, the community has banded together to push for more time to find new apartments.
Trouble is, no one can find affordable alternatives.
Working poor in Savannah
Clearview is one of few organically low-cost housing complexes left in Savannah, where rental prices have surged 18% in one year. The traditionally low-income neighborhoods in West Savannah haven’t been excluded from the uptick in housing costs, either.
In West Savannah, a household needs to earn at least $15.38 an hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to 2020 data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Based upon the Urban Land Institute’s definition of workforce housing (households earning between 60% and 120% of area median income) and a newsroom analysis of market prices and wage data, Savannah households making between $34,000 and $60,000 annually qualify as the “working poor.” That includes people like Washington, who works as an operator for the International Longshoremen’s Association. It includes reporters for the Savannah Morning News, young teachers, firefighters, waiters, line cooks and hotel staff.
The crisis reached a fever pitch this summer as inventory plummeted and rents skyrocketed, leaving buyers and renters floundering as they searched for a place in their budget.
For those in Clearview, the situation is more dire. “There’s nothing,” several residents repeated at a community meeting on Sept. 24, their faces twisted in distress as they considered their limited options and the looming deadline.
To qualify for a Housing Choice Voucher (previously known as Section 8), tenants have to make below a certain threshold. But for those who qualify, the waitlist is years long.
About 230 units in Savannah cost less than $700 a month. There are 5,049 units are between $700 and $1,000 a month, according to real estate data company Rent Café.
But what these numbers don’t take into account is the rental market’s meager availability.
“A lot of the apartment places that we’ve contacted,” Washington said. “No. 1, they’re not accepting applications because of COVID. And No. 2, a lot of them have waiting lists one, two, three years out. So now, (Cardinal Capital Management) is really handicapping us.”
An email request for comment from Cardinal Capital Management, who owns the property and will develop the new complex, was not returned. Cardinal Capital Management is a Wisconsin-based investment firm and developer that specializes in housing for veterans, those coming out of homelessness, and special needs tenants. There is no phone number listed on the company’s website.
Progress or displacement?
Washington’s story is one familiar to Black people across the Southeast, but is becoming increasingly felt by all racial demographics below a certain income level.
Population data shows that a combination of jobs, better cost-of-living and low tax rates are drawing large swaths of professionals from wealthier western and northeastern states (Californians, New Yorkers and New Jersians, mainly) to the South. The migration patterns have spurred big-time investments in long-impoverished Southeastern cities. Luxury apartment buildings, dog-friendly craft breweries and trendy bars are popping up in neighborhoods wealthy locals would’ve never dared to enter 10 or 20 years ago.
Poor communities pay the price through displacement. The communities they built up for themselves become enclaves of first, second, and vacation homes for their wealthier neighbors, who then gentrify it for themselves.
Last year, the seniors living in the 233-unit affordable housing complex Chatham Apartments, located to the east of Forsyth Park, were kicked out after an Atlanta real estate firm purchased the residential tower. Similar stories are happening in North Charleston, West Greenville, the Cherry neighborhood in Charlotte, and dozens of communities in Atlanta.
Washington calls it “racial gentrification.” Developers call it progress.
Cardinal Capital Management’s local development partner, Sylvester Formey of Vanguard Partners, said the move out is necessary for the project to stay on schedule.
“In order to get started with the demolition… I don’t think the city of Savannah will allow you to demolish one part of the property and leave folks in another,” Formey said. “We have to put fencing around it, we got to make sure that all we have to do remediation. That place is infested with lead paint.”
Savannah Gardens, one of the city’s most recent affordable hosing projects, moved tenants out in phases while the new buildings were constructed.
Formey said the apartments are “the most unhealthy place in Savannah” to live and his project will allow for a higher density of affordable units. Displaced residents will be given the option to move into the new development, but no date has been given on when that might be.
Washington has known about the demolition since the new development was presented to the Metropolitan Planning Commission in 2019. When it passed city council later that year, tenants were told the demolition would occur in phases, so no one would be kicked out for construction, according to Washington.
The tenants were moved from year-long leases to month-to-month agreements that same year, but heard nothing else about it.
“(Property management) just verbally kept telling us or texting us on the phone, ‘Well, the company’s saying we just want to keep on, y’all can stay here another six months, and then another six months will come up and they keep telling us another six months. So we thinking (that) everything is good,” Washington said.
‘Where are we gonna go?’
For four weeks, Natiema Challenger has been scrambling to find a place for her two kids, husband and father, who lives next door to them in his own apartment.
Challenger and her husband pay $575 a month in rent for the two-bedroom apartment they’ve lived in for 15 years. Both work full-time, but their incomes aren’t enough to pay for market-rate units.
“Where are we gonna go? There’s nothing. Nothing,” she said.
“Eventually I’ll find a place but what about until then? Do I go to shelter now and wait for my kids to get COVID because now we got to sleep in a random shelter?” Challenger asked, her New York accent growing thicker as each syllable wracked from her mouth.
Challenger and her then-boyfriend, Donald Williams, left Harlem in 2006 because it was getting too expensive. She followed her father to Savannah and Clearview, where she’s raised two children.
Her father planted a fruit tree and built a ladder for Nadawn Williams, Challenger’s eight-year-old daughter, to climb and pluck fruit in the summer. The backyard has played host to Nadawn’s handmade dollhouses, summertime birthday parties and, now, Beast, the family’s rambunctious puppy with dappled black fur.
Challenger understands she has to leave, her house is in disrepair and almost 100 units have been boarded up, vacant, for months. But she has heard nothing for two years, until the letter was posted to her door, giving her family 60 days to leave. Challenger said she’s not leaving until she finds her family safe housing.
“We’re not prepared to go back to the projects. We don’t want our son to be raised up in the projects,” Challenger said of her 15-year-old son. “We worked so hard to get out the projects, why would we take them back in here so they can die? Because that’s really what’s going on.”
‘I call it racial gentrification’
Like Washington, Challenger has applied to several apartment complexes and been denied due to the pandemic or a waiting list.
Residents can’t afford nearby apartments such as The Hue and The Baxley, where rents go up to $3,300 a month for a three-bedroom. Sustainable Fellwood, a nearby public housing complex also developed by Formey, has no availability according to online apartment listings.
Washington, an Air Force veteran, is working with the Veteran’s Affairs Department to find a place. But the timeline she has to find a place is shrinking.
“Don’t get me wrong, it does need to be torn down and rebuilt. I have no problem with that. But as far as the current tenants’ living arrangements, I don’t think it’s fair for them to push us out there within 60 days, and y’all continuously was collecting our rent, you know, we could have saved that money.”
Most rental units require an application fee, first month’s rent and a security deposit equal to a month’s rent before a tenant can move in. If an apartment costs $1,000 a month, someone would need to pay a minimum of $2,000 cash to secure the apartment.
“So now, we just go to work, come home, stack our money and save, because now we got to start over,” Washington said. “Because the money that we could have saved, we had to pay to rent here.” Rent was collected through August, but management told tenants they did not have to pay for September or October. Utilities are still charged.
Formey said he and “the team” of developers for the Clearview project offered to help “disabled and infirm” tenants find new lodging but at least five tenants said they’ve tried to call his number, only to find a disconnected tone.
“We have also consented to pay deposits for the places that they’re going to go,” he promised. The Morning News spoke with 14 tenants at a September neighborhood meeting, none of whom had been made aware of the promises that Formey shared with the Morning News.
Alderwoman Bernetta Lanier, whose district encompasses Clearview, has been working to provide housing options for neighbors for the past six weeks, but inventory is low and waiting lists are long.
At the Sept. 24 neighborhood meeting, Lanier wondered aloud what could be done now to help her constituents.
“I can tell you that (at a) city council meeting, (we) had a whole workshop on affordable housing, and it needs much to be desired,” Lanier said, referencing the city’s ambitious, 10-year plan to address the affordable hosing crisis in Chatham County. “You’re talking about a 10-year plan, (but) we’ve got people right now who need help.”
Lanier continued, “We’re looking 10 years down the line. What about right now? What about people in your situation, and there are some people that even worse situations who don’t have nowhere to live right now,” Lanier told the group. “And I don’t think we have enough resources in place.”
The skyrocketing prices of rental and owner-occupied homes in Savannah has caused a migration of Black people to western suburbs, according to an analysis of Census data. Those urban neighborhoods are losing permanent residents as short-term vacation rentals take up rental units.
And as Savannah extends its historic footprint throughout residential neighborhoods and beyond the tourism district, investment follows. After Charleston designated much of the peninsula as historic, gentrification pushed Black and white natives alike out of the city, according to a 2005 research paper. The similar movement of historic preservation and tourism is underway in Savannah.
“I call it racial gentrification..,” Washington said. “(The city) allows these big conglomerate developers to come into these very impoverished communities, and instead of fixing them up and making them affordable housing, you push them out and don’t care away where they go.”
Demolition to clear way for senior living, workforce housing units
Formey said Clearview needs to be demolished so the work on a 307-unit senior living and workforce housing development can begin.
Environmental remediation to remove the complex’s asbestos and lead paint will have to be completed before construction can begin.
“It has to be in competition for the most awful, dilapidated, unhealthy place in all Chatham County,” Formey said. “While I am not the owner of the property over there (that’s owned by Cardinal Capital.) I’m a part of the development team that is trying to improve the area with approximately 307 units of workforce affordable housing.”
A rezoning request plan was approved by city council in 2019, paving the way for a developer to demolish the decades-old apartments and build a senior and low-income living facility — similar to the Sustainable Fellwood development across West Bay Street.
The existing 130-unit apartment complex has only about 30 units still occupied, according to estimations from the remaining residents. When someone moved out, management boarded up the windows and locked the doors.
Residents said the maintenance and landscaping stopped about a year ago, too. Challenger’s backyard was mowed for the first time in weeks on Sept 30. Pockets of overgrown weeds, discarded trash and what Challenger thinks might be a stolen car clog the flat expanse of her yard.
Formey said those who are left will need to move out by Halloween so the project can stay on-schedule. “That date will be almost impossible to move.” He added that he asked Cardinal Capital Management to not evict anyone.
Challenger said she’s been applying to places for weeks, but the places she can afford are full. The money she pays on rent every month would’ve been enough to save up for a house, a permanent solution to her family’s stress. The management office has been closed for a year and a half, so she wasn’t sure if the boarded up units would be rented out or not. With no clear answer, Challenger decided to stay.
With the deadline approaching, Challenger and other neighbors have asked for an extension until February 28, when income tax returns will help with moving expenses.
“We are scared. I’m not saying I’m not scared. I’m not saying I’m ‘Billy Badass.’ But we are not going to go,” Challenger said. “What am I supposed to do? Walk around with a shopping cart and two children?”
Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at email@example.com, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.