Jun. 29—For nearly an hour, a crowd of about 60 Anniston residents sat quietly as consultants from the Walker Collaborative gave them an overview of Anniston's history, geography and Census numbers.
When the topic turned to housing, though, the crowd began to stir.
"The vacancy rate of housing here is 21 percent," said Randall Gross, a consultant for Walker. "That's extremely high. That's one in five housing units."
Gross and a handful of other experts on urban planning spoke to Anniston residents at the City Meeting Center Monday night, during one of the first public meetings in the city's comprehensive planning process. City leaders say they're required by law to create a comprehensive plan — a long-term plan for the city's development, typically crafted over a long series of meetings with local residents — though the city hasn't done so in years. The city council voted in March to pay Nashville-based Walker $150,000 to create that plan, a process that's likely to continue until late this year or early 2022.
"We're deciding what we want our city to look like 10 or 20 years from now," Mayor Jack Draper told the crowd at Monday's meeting, announced as a "kickoff" for the planning process.
For the better part of an hour, the consultants went over what they'd learned about Anniston so far: founded as a company town, around an iron works, in the 1870s; bolstered by the Army's Fort McClellan for most of the 20th Century. Smaller now that it was in 1999, when Fort McClellan closed. Smaller, in fact, than the city was in 1930, when the population first hit 25,000.
The presentation included some facts that perhaps local residents did not know. Gross said 71 percent of Anniston residents work outside the city, while 87 percent of the people who work in Anniston commute from elsewhere. Adjusted for inflation, he said, people in the city make less than they did 10 years ago. The poverty rate, 27 percent, is more than twice the national average. Average household income is $36,000 per year, compared to $65,000 nationwide.
Then came housing. One in five houses sit empty, Gross said, and more than half the houses that exist are valued at less than $100,000. Yet a quarter of homeowners and 44 percent of renters pay more than 35 percent of their income on housing, something Gross described as "a significant indicator of your poverty levels."
"That's a very high percentage," he said. "You're spending too much of your household income on other things that you could purchase."
Those figures generated a noticeable murmur in the crowd, and when the consultants opened the floor to comment, housing was the first topic of discussion. Residents said local jobs simply didn't pay enough to cover rent even for Anniston's relatively inexpensive houses. Others said high utility rates — something not addressed in the consultants' presentation — are making matters worse, particularly in old houses that aren't well insulated.
"People are pumping high-cost energy in, and it's going out the doors and windows," said Anniston resident Jim Williams.
It's not the first time the city has confronted housing as an issue.Despite the relatively large number of empty houses in the city's core, Anniston has had a shortage of beds for homeless people ever since the Salvation Army men's shelter, in bad physical shape after long use, shut down in 2019.Attempts to create a new shelter have so far borne no fruit. The Anniston Housing Authority is pursuing a plan to renovate or rebuild much of the city's public housing, though the discovery of industrial waste at the former site Cooper Homes has complicated efforts to rebuild there. Cooper was torn down in 2018.
Some in the audience bristled, at least a little, at the findings of the consultants, some of whom are new to Anniston. State Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, rose to ask why the presenters, when listing the city's assets, said little about Freedom Riders National Monument and other development along Gurnee Avenue.
"We have a lot more here than you think," she said.
Residents had no shortage of ideas for the city. Asked what they saw as models for Anniston's future, one person cited Chattanooga — because the city owns its own electrical utility. Another mentioned Greer, S.C., which became known as an "inland port" after opening itself up as a distribution hub for various products. Still others cited Charlotte and Savannah as walkable cities.
The consultants said they're still in the process of listening to ideas. Later this year, consultant Philip Walker said, the consultants will likely hold a multi-day "charrette" in which local residents have more involved discussions — a process that will likely lead to the first draft of a plan.
Walker said no date has yet been set for that event.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.