Georgia Smart Savannah Project Holds Virtual Site Visit

by Suemin Lee

By mordavis | June 29, 2021, 10:06am EDT

Using data collection, machine learning, and consulting with affected residents, the city of Savannah has been working to address blight in its neighborhoods and develop plans for affordable housing options as part of an ongoing revitalization focus.

Savannah is one of four communities in the state participating in the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge (Georgia Smart). An award-winning program of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia Smart encourages local communities across the state to develop, test, and implement new practices that contribute to a smarter and more sustainable future.

Each year, communities apply to participate in the program, and selected communities are connected with resources, partnered with a Georgia Tech research team, and additional collaborations to help execute their projects.

On June 17, the city of Savannah hosted a Georgia Smart Live Event to update the community on its findings and progress.

Brian Brainerd, Savannah’s senior planner, explained the project aims to reduce vacant, abandoned, and dis-invested (VAD) housing and replace it with improved, affordable housing. To achieve this goal, the project is working on identifying and acquiring VAD properties. Clio Andris, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of City & Regional Planning, is working with graduate research assistant Xiaofan Liang to predict VAD properties using a human-in-the-loop machine learning model. Using data from civic data sources, Andris and Liang have identified several variables that are reliable VAD property indicators. Now, they are training a machine learning model to learn from their data.

Alison Gladley, director of the Chatham County/City of Savannah Land Bank Authority (LBA), explained how the LBA aims to acquire vacant, abandoned, blighted, and tax delinquent properties in order to facilitate their return to a productive use. The LBA is one way in which Savannah’s Georgia Smart team hopes to acquire VAD properties. Beyond identifying and acquiring VAD parcels, the team is seeking to maximize its positive impact on communities by analyzing the effects of the city’s policies as well as engaging with residents.

Omar Ascensio, an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy, along with PhD student Vincent Gu, and undergraduate student Edward Chen are using existing city data to analyze the impacts of housing assistance programs in Savannah. Their research focuses on policies related to down-payment assistance, infill, and critical exterior repair. The team’s preliminary findings suggest that policy interventions generally increase property values. These conclusions can help shape how the Georgia Smart team plans to intervene in neighborhoods with VAD properties.

One overarching goal throughout the duration of the project is to value, recognize, and engage community members who live adjacent to VAD properties. Lizann Roberts of the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition (CGIS) is leading a project to randomly select blocks in Savannah to survey. Canvassers hired by the CGIS are charged to meet with residents to measure their perception of VAD properties near them.

With all the progress that the project has made, Brainerd values the abundance of data but recognizes the difficulty in drawing definitive impacts of intervention. In the closing of the event, Brainerd described the project’s use of the Landgrid app. With help from SCAD undergraduate intern Bethany Laskin, project team members will look at qualitative data throughout on specific blocks to enhance decision making.

Overall the event showcased how the joint efforts of all of the people and organizations involved, the Savannah’s Georgia Smart team continues its work to improve housing opportunities and the livelihoods of the city’s residents.

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