Council Agenda Highlights Troubling Statistics for Neighborhood Revitalization

This week’s city council agenda has some interesting information to share regarding Decatur’s population, housing issues, and neighborhood revitalization. At the April 11th council meeting, goals for neighborhood revitalization will be discussed. In the council agenda packet, you can go through the information yourself, but I thought I’d highlight some of the data that is eye-opening.

Neighborhood revitalization has been a recurring topic for city council meetings, as far back as I’ve been following local politics, way back to 2008 to be exact. Not much progress has been made since then, other than more frequent demolitions.

From 2010 to 2020, Decatur has lost 7% of its population, approximately 5,600 residents. Median home value in Decatur is only $83,000, significantly lower than the average national average of nearly $375,000. Yet, buying a home in Decatur is difficult for low-income households. Also, many homes in Decatur are in need of repair and neighborhood improvements.

Another important topic is rent. Average house payment and rental fees in Decatur are virtually the same, at $683. A striking statistic is that 49% of renters are cost burdened (pay more than 30% on housing), compared to only 13% of homeowners. So, renters on average are struggling more financially than home buyers.

For those earning approximately $34,000 a year, a buyer could afford to purchase a $60,000 home in Decatur, which would equate to about a $700/month house payment. Decatur has many homes in this price range. Unfortunately, many of the homes priced at this level are in either poor condition and/or located in troubled neighborhoods. Another issue is that it is very difficult for low-income residents to secure financing to buy a home.

A big reason for this is that one-third of Decatur households earn less than $25,000 a year. Another one-fourth earn between $25,000 – $50,000 a year. That mean that nearly 75% of households in Decatur earn less than $50,000 a year. Decatur’s poverty rate sits at 24%, while the average poverty rate in the United States is 11%.

Some recommendations in the presentation include creating a creating a pool of qualified home buyers, preserving existing housing, defining target areas for improvement, creating a home repair program, utilizing an abandonment to rehab program, acquire land for development, and use an idea called “placemaking”, which focuses on creating parks, gardens, farmer’s markets, etc., within targeted areas to instill pride and identity in a neighborhood.

There are examples of placemaking in the packet that other cities have implemented.

Looking over the data, it’s clear that Decatur has an uphill climb, but helping people move from paying rent to becoming a home owner would greatly improve their financial condition.

Of course, there are other costs to being a homeowner, such as insurance, property taxes, and upkeep. But, buying a home is an investment, whereas renting is like throwing money in the wind. You’re never going to get that money back.

One of the recommendations of the study is to better inform low-income and first-time home buyers of government programs available to help them buy a home. Many Decatur residents would qualify for such programs.

Still, at the end of the day, until Decatur’s poverty rate improves, it’s going to be extremely difficult to revitalize Decatur’s neighborhoods. With a 50% vacancy rate in much of the inner city, it’s more than an uphill climb.

I still like my idea of converting many of the vacant areas into forests, solar or wind power lots, or even farmland. Just do something with the land that’s useful to the city. Weedy vacant lots and dilapidated homes have little value.

Decatur is a city built for a population of 100,000 people, but we’ve lost over 25% of that population over the past 30 years. It isn’t sustainable to try to provide services (sewer, water, roads) to neighborhoods that are practically abandoned. The tax revenue and other fees generated in these areas don’t support these services. That leads to higher property taxes for everyone.

Concentrate populations into more manageable areas and get tough on crime. I know that’s easier said than done.

Anyway, I’ll be watching the meeting and learning more about the recommendations.