By Brian Myers | Illustration by Jenn Carroll
JASON Combs has proven to be an instrumental part of the business development in the district informally referred to as Starland.
In the last eight years, Combs has worked with various neighborhood associations, helping to combine the Metropolitan Association into the now larger Thomas Square entity. This merger between the two, with Combs as an active leader, has helped pave the way for substantial commercial growth in and around the area. In less than a decade, Savannahians and tourists have seen the neighborhood transform to include some of the city’s most favored places to eat and drink. Two Tides Brewing, Sobremesa, and Lone Wolf Lounge have given the district a real shot in the arm when it comes to nightlife, while the recently opened Brochu’s lends nationally renowned credence to the neighborhood’s cuisine.
Combs has served as president of the Thomas Square Neighborhood Association for the last two years. His leadership and outreach, along with his support for fostering a healthy balance between small business development and residences, has certainly given his candidate resume a healthy dose of political relevance. But for all the work he’s involved himself with in his own neighborhood, his overall vision for what Savannah needs is much broader in scope.
Holding a Masters in City Planning and Urban Design from Georgia Tech, Combs pointed out in an interview with The Savannahian that the elected officials should be looking at a better formulated plan when it comes to one of the major crises that residents face: housing costs.
With median home prices seeing record highs and rents becoming unaffordable to more and more native Savannah residents, Combs is urging the community to use basic economics to help rectify the issue. The popularity of the city has led to population increases in recent years, with more anticipated to make Savannah home in the near future. The growth of SCAD’s student population has impacted the local housing market as well.
But for Combs, it’s Economics 101 all over again. He points out that when the level of available housing is less than the demand, the higher the prices will be. To solve this problem, Combs has the desire to greatly increase the housing supply.
To the candidate, this means increasing the housing supply at all levels.
“People need to realize that you can't just support development when you think it's only about affordable housing. We need housing for all segments. Even luxury housing. All parts of the market need to be fulfilled, so that wealth doesn't dictate pricing.”
He supports this idea by pointing out that when a product is scarce, the high price leads to people with wealth getting access to it. From his vantage point, housing is no different. “We need to recognize the current growth, and anticipate more,” he said. “We need a housing abundance.”
Combs’ vision includes taking blighted areas that aren’t developed and making multi-family housing available. He is insistent that if the city sees substantially more units, whether traditional houses or apartments, the market will see rental price reductions. “All of it works toward affordable housing.”
Combs stated that housing, and the way the City has handled it, has not only put a strain on renters and homeowners, but also on public services. This growing pressure on street maintenance, police protection, and city utilities is going to increase with any population growth. But what will further compound the problems, he maintains, is if the City continues to expand its boundaries and expands/annexes further out.
Combs is strongly in favor of the City’s growth. But, according to his vision, “that growth needs to be within our current footprint.” In other words, the more geographic area the city needs to have services, the greater the cost and the greater the strain on the services the taxpayers rely upon.
From a City budget standpoint, Combs wants to examine the General Fund from every possible angle. He seems to bring a common sense approach to the municipality’s books, hoping to find better ways to spend, and to save, taxpayer money. Combs has innovative approaches to how the local government can increase its general revenue and fund the services that the citizens need, but without putting financial pressure on the individual taxpayers.
One solution he discussed was bringing SCAD leadership to the table and negotiating PILOT programs with the school. As most of the 80+ properties the entity owns are exempt from property taxes by state statute, a PILOT would be a way to have the school participate on a financial level that is commensurate with their usage of municipal services.
Combs stated that he “appreciates the recent outreach” that SCAD officials have made with making an inroad with the city government. But he feels that city officials and the school could come together and find effective ways to make SCAD more of a cooperative stakeholder than they are today. And while he acknowledges that the 17-story housing tower downtown has created some controversy between SCAD and some citizens, Combs was quick to point out that SCAD having their own buildings set aside for housing takes the thousands of SCAD students out of the housing market, keeping them from competing with residents for affordable homes.
When the topic of the millage rate was discussed, Combs went on the record agreeing with the current Council on keeping the rate the same. But moving forward, if he’s elected, he wants to examine every current and potential revenue stream for Savannah and look for ways to potentially lower it. In his interview, Combs presented several ways that should be explored, including fire fees for all parcels of land, looking into whether or not shipping container fees would be feasible, and working with state officials for a land tax. The latter would work to shift the burden from residential homeowners to those who buy vacant properties purely for speculative purposes.
Combs takes this idea a step further when asked about how short term rental property owners have impacted the housing market. Combs is in favor of sequestering that category of property owner into its own class, and working with Chatham County to tax them at a higher rate.
As recreational marijuana legalization has loomed as a possibility in the state of Georgia, Combs was asked about his thoughts on how the local government should regulate it. Combs feels that other municipalities should be studied in regard to how they should be governed, so that we can learn from their successes and failures. He stated that he wishes for Savannah to keep its policy of decriminalization for possession of small amounts of the drug.
If elected, another scope of municipal government that Combs is passionate about relates to the Civic Center. Combs wants to push for a change in the thinking on the Council level, and encourage the original blocks in the structure’s footprint to be recut back into the Oglethorpe Plan.
By using this property, and others in the future, for housing, “we can greatly increase the population density of our downtown. This increases the number of people who live and work downtown, eliminating the need for many to own a vehicle.” Combs again reiterated that “housing” means housing on every financial level, and not just what has been considered to be “affordable housing.”
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