Housing USA: Georgia

6 min read

Preserving the Old South

The South has played a crucial role in American history, and by extension, in the nation’s architectural legacy. From the Palladian home where Thomas Jefferson helped pen our country’s ideals, to the antebellum plantations where those ideals were flouted through the institution of slavery, the South’s loaded history is told in its buildings. That is why it has become so important to save them. A number of Southern states are doing just that, with state and federal tax credit programs that make preservation financially viable. Georgia has been one of the region’s most active preservationists.

The state abounds with historic structures spanning multiple styles and eras, from the Georgian homes built in the late 18th century, to the simpler folk Victorian homes of the late 19th century, to the brick warehouses that arose later, when Atlanta became an industrial rail crossroads.  Another common historic architectural form, says Mark McDonald, CEO of The Georgia Trust, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation, is the state’s many Greek Revival churches and homes. These are the large, two-story buildings with massive Ionic columns that are often found on plantations and in small towns. While Greek Revival became a common style nationwide throughout the mid-19th century, it was more associated with the “Old South,” said McDonald, because the region had more native timber to support this particular construction style.

Now Georgia is leveraging various programs to preserve these buildings. This begins with the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program. Recently the National Park Service, which oversees the program, published an annual report showing how much and how often each state used the credit. Between FY 2013 and FY 2017, Georgia was 12th nationally in applications approved, with 121.

It was 30th nationally over that same period in qualified rehabilitation expenditures, with the northern states proving more spend-happy.

Georgia’s state-level programs complement its use of the federal credit. This includes the Income Tax Credit Program for Rehabilitated Historic Property, which was expanded in 2017 to far surpass its previous maximum credit of $300,000. Now that cap is $25 million annually for large qualifying projects. According to the state website, the program “allows eligible participants to apply for a State Income Tax Credit equaling 25 percent of qualifying rehabilitation expenses capped at $100,000 for a personal residence, and $300,000, $5 million or $10 million for all other properties.”

The credit can be used to rehab “certified structures” that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or the Georgia Register of Historic Places. In FY 2017, the state allocated $32 million for this Historic Rehabilitation Credit.

Another Georgia program is a county property tax freeze that the state grants for 8.5 years, for rehabilitators who increase the fair market value of their historic property by 50 to 100 percent. The idea behind this break is to prevent rehabilitators from getting hit with large immediate tax increases just for improving their properties.

This expanded, multi-tiered preservation apparatus means the program is useful for various applicants, from individual homeowners and home speculators repairing their properties, to developers pursuing large, master-planned renovation projects. It also means, said McDonald, that far more projects are viable.

“It’s safe to say most of these projects would not happen if the tax credits did not exist,” claimed McDonald by phone. “[The credits] have been enormously helpful in assisting investors in restoring historic buildings, rather than demolishing them.”

It hasn’t hurt that Georgia is a place investors, thanks to a strong state economy, increasingly want to place their money. Georgia’s economy ranked #18 among the 50 states in a recent WalletHub study looking at growth, innovation, job creation and other metrics. Atlanta is at the center of this dynamism: between 2016 and 2017, it was third in the nation in net population growth at 89,000, trailing only Dallas and Houston. Atlanta is also perennially among the leaders for corporate and workforce relocation. This influx has created a critical mass of people who can afford to revitalize or purchase historic properties.

Yet the restoration has occurred statewide. McDonald said that for decades, Savannah was the leading recipient of tax credit money, with 40 percent of its 2,500 buildings maintaining historic or architectural value. But there aren’t many buildings left to preserve in the 146,000-person city, which is known internationally for its neoclassical building mix and traditional street grid. So tax credit spending has shifted more towards Macon, Columbus, Augusta and various parts of rural Georgia.

Where the preservation money is really being used, though, is Atlanta. Because of Civil War damage, mixed in with later fires, Atlanta has a relatively small amount of antebellum architecture. It’s better known as a modernist city where recent growth and new money has created a more pragmatic motif. But it does have industrial architecture from when the city grew as a railroad crossing – and some of it has been restored. Ponce City Market, a former Sears warehouse, was reopened in 2014 using tax credits, as a mixed-use development that, much like the Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, combines multiple daily needs and public spaces in the same gargantuan facility. Krog Street Market, just a few blocks away, is a former stove factory that also reopened in 2014 as a much smaller mixed-use property with niche retail. The $200-million Pullman Yards redevelopment, which will go along 27 acres of a former fertilizer plant on the east side, will also have this mixed-use, community-space quality. And of course there are individual homes being preserved, an activity that will seem more and more necessary to locals as the city continues to develop.

Atlanta, and the state of Georgia, are not the only parts of the South that are embracing historic preservation. According to the National Park Service report, Louisiana and Virginia were numbers one and two, respectively, for approved historic projects. And of the 11 states in the South, eight of them have their own Historic Tax Credit programs. Two of those states – Mississippi and Tennessee – have programs under proposal. In a region that is core to the history of America, it’s only fitting there would be such a focus on restoring its old buildings.

Story Contact:
Mark McDonald
President & CEO, The Georgia Trust