During the '90s and aughts, many of Savannah's poorest neighborhoods spiraled into disrepair. Aging residents lacked the money and energy to maintain their properties; younger residents and business owners were fleeing in search of livelier communities. Fed up with rising crime and plummeting property values, residents staged protests. "They needed help," says Martin Fretty, who oversees Savannah's Department of Housing, "and they needed it soon." In response, the city launched Neighborhood Renaissance Savannah in 2000. The $150 million program is funded in part through a voter-approved "penny tax," which adds one cent to in-city purchases. In three pilot neighborhoods, Savannah fixed up abandoned homes with an eye for eco and historical concerns, selling and renting them to people interested in putting down roots. The city also partnered with local businesses to lure commerce back to those areas and invested heavily in parks and community centers. In Cuyler-Brownsville, a historic midtown neighborhood, the city spent $8 million repurposing an abandoned elementary school and hospital into additional housing. Crime in the three neighborhoods has dropped significantly and Fretty estimates that property values have risen 40%. Last year, Neighborhood Renaissance Savannah snagged a gold rating from the National League of Cities and is now raising $100 million to revitalize a fourth community. In other words, Fretty says, "We're rolling with what's working."
A version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.