Inner City: Savannah Landmark

Black and white photo of Black woman standing on porch

Barry Jacobs

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 1, "Building South." Find more from that issue here.

As her pink broom chases dust from her porch into the bright Savannah morning, Lola Parker glances fondly at the rowhouse across the street. Soon the neighborhood work crew will finish transforming the building from a dingy shambles into a brightly colored, four-apartment showcase and then shift to Lola Parker’s side of East Bolton Street and the rambling grey hulk next door. The crew will not come to her house, yet Lola Parker enjoys the benefits of their restorative touch. 

For one thing, the neighborhood looks prettier, more vibrant and will look even nicer once the herringbone brick sidewalk and Victorian gardens with Chinese star jasmine and big leaf periwinkle are installed. Best of all, the Parkers’ landlady has been moved by the improvement across the street to make changes of her own, including paying someone to paint I the front and second parlors of the 10-room apartment where Lola Parker lives with her five children and her mother. The rent will not stay at $90 a month once the apartment is spruced up, but to Lola Parker it’s well worth the price. 

“If Savannah Landmark hadn’t started on these houses, my landlady wouldn’t have started on this place,” Lola Parker observes. “I think they’re doing a wonderful thing.” 

Savannah Landmark, a non-profit development corporation which aims to rehabilitate one-third of the housing units in this Georgia seacoast city’s predominantly black, predominantly elderly Victorian District without displacing low-income families like the Parkers, does have its detractors. One angry young black woman denounced the project as “pie in the sky. They’re just using poor people to make money, just like they always do,” she spat. And a white antique dealer who made the local news when he thwarted the inclusion of his house in a TV movie by hanging a swastika flag from his window during filming, expressed opposition to keeping the present “criminal element” in the Parkers’ neighborhood. “If you stabilize these people in the area, people with children won’t move in,” he said. The housing undergoing rehabilitation is located in a 45-block section just south of Savannah’s chic downtown area. Comprised of 839 variegated wood frame dwellings built as single-family suburban housing between the 1870s and early 1900s, the Victorian District became an urban ghetto by World War II as whites moved away from the central city and erected new homes. The single-family homes were broken up into two and three apartments. Today 80 percent of the district’s living units are rental housing. Absentee landlords neglect needed repairs, and tenants’ complaints I are customarily ignored by landlords. Thus are urban slums born. 

But Savannah is not like other cities. It has an innovative, human-scaled tradition which traces back to the symmetrical squares and streets laid out by founders James Oglethorpe and William Bull in 1733 and carried out by those who blocked the destruction of that same beautiful downtown scene in the 1950s and ’60s before preservation became fashionable elsewhere. Out of that genteel tradition grew Savannah Landmark, which strives not only to arrest the tide of decay engulfing the Victorian District, but to do so in a manner touted by syndicated columnist Neal Peirce as “a model of how a city can begin the process of residential revitalization . . . without the brutal uprooting of blacks and other low-income residents.” 

According to the National Housing Law Project, “the threat of displacement has always hung over the poor and minorities and other politically powerless groups,” a precedent an activist Savannah Landmark is seeking to break. “It is far better and cheaper to rehabilitate the sound housing stock that is in the inner cities than to build public housing projects that are antiseptic, impersonal, and give no sense of place or neighborhood,” explained Lee Adler, chairman of the 20-member Savannah Landmark board of directors and the primary force behind the project’s creation. 

The provision of such housing is presented in turn as a vital intermediate step toward achieving social as well as preservationist goals. Landmark’s low-income rental units will act as a sort of dam, slowing — if not blocking — the process of gentrification; in other cities, middle- and upper-middle income people attracted to handsome and conveniently located inner-city housing have driven out low-income residents. Savannah Landmark hopes to assure a heterogeneous mix in the neighborhood, a condition Reverend George Maxwell, rector of Christ Episcopal Church and a former Landmark board member, says already exists “in pockets” throughout the district where Landmark’s units blend unobtrusively with their surroundings. And somewhere down the line, in an as yet inchoate fashion, those involved in Landmark expect to increase the power of low-income residents by facilitating eventual tenant control and/or ownership of the project’s housing. 


From the first, Savannah Landmark’s efforts to preserve the character of the Victorian District have rested on a carefully cultivated reputation for sound fiscal management that has enabled it to acquire and steadily expand private and public financial support. Loans to purchase properties have been extended by local banks, especially the minority-owned Carver State Bank, and by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Administrative and program development funds have come from private grants and federal sources as diverse as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Innovative Projects program. Federally supported CETA workers, as many as possible recruited from the Victorian District, supply about threequarters of the construction force. And there have been major foundation grants, such as a recent Ford Foundation loan of $800,000 that paid half the cost of purchasing 270 of Landmark’s 418 Victorian District housing units. 

Savannah Landmark’s business reputation derives in part from the status of its leaders. For example, Adler, an investment broker, wields considerable influence as a former advocate of Savannah’s downtown preservation movement. Adler and others used their political clout to win the project a vital waiver of federal rules against double subsidies. The exemption allowed Landmark to borrow “312” rehabilitation funds from HUD at three percent interest for 20 years and simultaneously to gain rent subsidies through HUD’s “Section 8” Housing Assistance Program. Section 8 pays the difference between a code-conforming apartment’s fair market value ($175 to $350 per month in Savannah) and 25 percent of a low-income tenant’s gross income. Savannah Landmark takes the rental payment (usually $50 to $75) and the federal subsidy and applies them toward repayment of the 312 and other loans. This enables the project to pay off the mortgages on its newly purchased and restored housing without raising rents and displacing its low-income tenants. 

This ability to forge existing resources into an effective new strategy for financing progressive urban renewal has won Savannah Landmark widespread attention as a possible model for other cities seeking to resuscitate rundown inner-city neighborhoods. If cities fend off bulldozers long enough, project architect Eric DeLony maintains, projects like Savannah Landmark can arise to revive their unique neighborhoods as vibrant parts of the urban community.

DeLony's job may be the most crucial in Savannah Landmark; certainly it is the most delicate. In 1974, as Savannah Landmark was being established, the district – with its distinctive housing, its back lanes (never called alleys, visitors are cautioned), its wide streets lined with gracious live oaks, its faintly rustic ambience – was named to the National Register of Historic Places. This increased the availability of federal funding but also imposed some costly controls over the alterations to neighborhood homes.

Working with houses that originally cost $4,500 to build, Savannah Landmark has $18,000 to $22,000 to apply to the actual rehabilitation of each unit after deducting for administrative costs, architect's fees, insurance, loan payments and total replacement of electrical, plumbing and heating systems. That money may be eaten up by the time Landmark’s four local contractors finish rehabilitating floors, walls, roofs and windows, repainting the house and installing new appliances. If money remains — usually about $2,000 — DeLony applies it to what he calls “amenities,” attempting to restore everything from cornices and gingerbread to interior bannister newels, decorative moldings, chimneys and fireplaces. Crews of three to five CETA workers, supervised by skilled tradespeople, perform the demanding rehabilitation work. 

Almost incredibly, within those design and financial constraints DeLony, the builders and Savannah Landmark have conjured modern, convenient living areas which retain the spaciousness and grace that originally marked the houses. Equipped with new fixtures, new appliances, new plaster, new paint, the units fairly sparkle when they’re finished. “All my board members say, ‘Boy, I wish I could live in a place like this,’ ” DeLony notes with pleasure. For his part, the trained restoration architect, who never before had the chance to practice the nuts-and-bolts part of his craft, says the process of converting a battered hulk into a beautiful home was “kind of a profound experience.” 

Needless to say, district residents are quite taken with the rejuvenated housing; there is already a 500-family waiting list, 50 to 75 percent of them district residents, for the approximately 400 units yet to be occupied. Thaddeus Hodges, Landmark’s housing officer, reports that after painting a large, three-unit, yellow and white building on the well-traveled corner of Price and Duffy streets, the project quickly received 50 inquiries from prospective tenants. “People see that the program is working and they love it,” Hodges says. 

Felicia Martin, 23, lives in a Landmark unit on Price Street around the corner from where her grandmother used to live. “I happened to pass by when they were fixing it up,” she says. She asked about renting the unit and not only got it, but a CETA job as a Landmark painter as well. “I count my blessings many times because they came along," she enthuses. Adds Willie Mae Edwards, another Landmark tenant, "This apartment is beautiful. Oh, God, it's a whole lot better than where we were staying before.”

While Landmark's work is indisputably exceptional, serious unanswered questions about its methods and future do exist. The doubts trace back to Landmark's origin and makeup.

“Tell me, how many community people are on the board?” one of Landmark’s few black board members asks rhetorically. From the first, the project’s direction has been controlled primarily by whites who came into the Victorian District and remade the housing to their own specifications. Potential tenants have no say in the matter. 

“They started at the top and they’re trying to work down to the people,” comments W.W. Law, president emeritus of the Savannah NAACP and leader of a nascent black rehabilitation effort in the adjacent Beach Institute Historic District. “Being who they were, they had to start as they did.” 

This missionary approach has left Landmark open to charges that it is engaged in a form of cultural imperialism, a criticism Landmark president Loy Veal, for one, strongly disputes. While acknowledging there are few residents on the board, Veal says that will change as more units are occupied and the tenant association organized by Landmark becomes more powerful. “I’m not a white liberal with a big guilt trip on my shoulders,” Veal insists. “We’re just putting a little fertilizer on the grass. ... If we had waited for the community, the community would be displaced into 16 other slum communities and the wealthy people would be sitting here having tea,” he says. 

Veal’s view is shared by most black leaders with ties to the Victorian District, including Law, who points out that Savannah Landmark is “saving a neighborhood. They are providing better housing for people in a way that’s never been done in Savannah before. Perhaps if they started at the other end, they wouldn’t be as far along as they are now.” 

“I think Landmark’s a super thing,” says Reverend Maxwell, who also lauds the project for attempting to bring the community into its decision making. “When you look at what they’ve accomplished, nobody else has done it. Private enterprise didn’t do it. They couldn’t afford it. ... To ask poor people to build that kind of organization is just unrealistic.” 

Or, as Felicia Martin puts it, “It didn’t matter to me who was doing it because I felt like it was helping.” 

Through open houses, block parties and the simple persuasion of sparkling buildings and prideful tenants, Savannah Landmark has fostered considerable grassroots interest in its work within the Victorian District. Whether those efforts will be sufficient to free the project from the taint of paternalism and to bring significant decision making power to neighborhood residents remains to be seen. 

The fact that most of the formative decisions will have been made by the time tenants exert any control over Landmark housing seems to engender scant concern among the project’s adherents, or, again, its renters. Interest remains centered around “the re-establishment of Negro home ownership” in the area, according to W.W. Law. “That is the only part of Landmark’s program we’re not satisfied with at this point,” he says. 

A newly proposed move toward syndication would put Landmark into a limited partnership with Atlanta developer Bron Cleveland and with nearly two dozen “passive investors” in an attempt to speed its work, gain capital and wean itself away from handouts and loans toward financial independence. President Veal justifies the proposed shift in sources of capital by pointing to the toll taken on Landmark’s resources by high interest rates and tight money. 

But syndication brings with it intrinsic difficulties, as several board members — part of a diverse group including clergy, bankers, civil rights leaders and businessmen — and other project supporters recognize. The same pressures that seem to make syndication advisable have led to reducing Landmark’s restoration goals from 600 units in all to only 418. Moreover, a stepped-up construction pace which calls for completing the project in three years rather than 10 threatens not only the quality of the restoration, but ultimately that of the tenants’ living quarters as well. Initial proposals from Cleveland seemed to bear out such fears; they called for a complete gutting of the units’ interiors and insertion of more units per dwelling, a move explained by Adler as a possible means for recouping rising purchase costs. 

The Savannah Housing Department, which for the most part has been supportive of Landmark’s efforts, opposes further division of the dwellings and referred the project’s requests for changes in tenant “density ceilings” to the city’s planning commission. “If you cram in as many people as you can, you’re little different than a slumlord,” offers Betty Hodges, the department’s special projects coordinator. 

While Savannah Landmark continues to acquire Victorian District housing — it may already be the city’s largest slumlord — Adler and Veal concede promised tenant ownership remains a remote eventuality. That chimerical status does not sit well with many, like W.W. Law, who view home ownership, or at least tenant control, as perhaps the most important aspect of Landmark’s efforts in the district. “Home ownership is the reason I’m on the board,” declares Ian Robinson, director of the city’s successful community gardening project. 

Robinson says that since most area residents are unlikely to ever marshal the wherewithal to purchase a house on the open market no matter what its price, Savannah Landmark offers them their only chance at ownership. Yet he also recognizes that giving tenants houses wouldn’t work unless a mechanism is built in to prevent their reselling their new houses to speculators and thereby defeating the purposes of the project. 

Of course there is historical precedent on a federal level for giving away property with the stipulation it cannot be immediately resold. Another way around the problem would be to continue placing Landmark residents on the board until they become the majority, 51 percent if Loy Veal has his way. At that point, as Robinson sees it, the tenants “would control” and the question of Landmark ownership would become moot. But Robinson expresses a preference for moving toward a trust, a cooperative, a redefinition of ownership that would divest Savannah Landmark of its custodial role in the Victorian District and place control of housing in the hands of the residents who occupy it. 

Problems and doubts notwithstanding, a few things about Savannah Landmark remain clear. It unquestionably goes a long way toward providing decent, affordable housing to lowincome persons on a nondisplacing basis. That the $13 to $15 million project offers them an opportunity to inhabit historic inner-city housing at a time when such properties are being gobbled up by monied private interests is an added strength. And that Landmark’s energies are directed at some level to “transforming from do-gooder to community-based organization,” as Veal insists, indicates further room for growth. 

W.W. Law echoes this perspective on Savannah Landmark’s nonprofit efforts. “All previous programs to improve housing in the inner city have been basically programs to clear out the poor people living in the area,” he says. “That’s just not restoration. It includes urban renewal, slum clearance and all the other programs. I’m not willing at this time to be overly critical of what Landmark is doing when I don’t see anybody else on the scene who’s trying to do anything like what they’re doing.”