When noted New Urbanist architect Andres Duany last spoke in Charleston, he praised this city for having some of the nation’s most beautiful affordable housing.
The Gateway Development
by the numbers
9 new single-family homes
4 renovated homes divided into 12 rental units
The 12 rental units are designed for lower-income persons, defined as those earning 65 percent or less of the area’s median income. A two-bedroom unit, plus utilities, will go for about $880 a month.
One of the nine new single-family homes was sold at a more affordable price, about $175,000, both because it’s smaller and because of other nonprofit subsidies.
$1.92 million is the city’s net investment here.
$1.2 million was recouped by selling the rental units to the Charleston Housing Authority.
$700,000 was the city’s net subsidy.
The city’s new Gateway development, a series of four home renovations and nine new homes right where Interstate 26 becomes the Septima P. Clark Crosstown Expressway, should only bolster that reputation.
This project, so complicated and frustrating at first, would wind up being just as successful and beautiful in the end.
The city of Charleston began acquiring property here a few decades ago, when it was largely a blighted area stung by the noisy effects of Crosstown traffic. It bought the large Victorian home whose double piazza matched the curve in the street, and it repaired it so its lean no longer threatened the house next door.
A generation later, the same house was bought by the Department of Transportation for the Ravenel Bridge. The city wouldn’t let the state tear it down, and it was moved back a little from a new highway ramp.
Still, the city bought it back, acquired three other older vacant homes nearby and tried to figure out what to do next, as the homes stood empty and in growing need of repair. Three had suffered fire damage.
The city’s goals for the site included: preserving the buildings; creating more affordable housing; and strengthening the neighborhood.
The only problem? No one was particularly interested in helping, as the city sought proposals for three times with no luck. Developers and contractors were interested but couldn’t make the numbers work.
Then it tried a fourth time. As last week’s dedication, Charleston Housing and Community Development director Geona Shaw Johnson said, “Thank you, Mayor Riley, for not letting me give up.”
The city was able to strike a deal with Ecovest Development LLC, a private real estate company that specializes, according to its website, in urban infill and “troubled land acquisition.”
The city would pay Ecovest to restore the four historic homes and convert them into rental units, which the city then sold to the Charleston Housing Authority for $1.2 million.
That deal not only made the project work but also will ensure these 12 rental units will remain relatively affordable for as long as the authority and city want.
Authority President Don Cameron said the units should all be full by Christmas time.
“To do affordable housing is not easy,” he added. “You have to be kind of like a bulldog. You can’t let go of that bone.”
The city then sold the remaining land for $225,000, and Ecovest could build nine homes there, eight that it could sell at market rate and one that would sell for a more affordable ($175,000, after subsidies) price.
Architect Julia Martin oversaw the renovations and designed the infill homes, which don’t copy the stylistic elements of the older homes but still blend with them as far as materials (everything is mostly wood), shapes and massing.
The new homes were a more potentially profitable part than the renovations, so the city insisted that the renovations be done first, or at the same time, which is what happened.
Ironically, the very thing that makes this a less-than optimal neighborhood — the nearby expressway — is also what makes this renovation so important, as tens of thousands of people, mostly in cars, pass by it every day.
Most wandering the curving Engel Street today, from Carolina and King streets will see only new or newly renovated homes. They likely will have no clue that some are dedicated as affordable housing while others can be sold at market rates.
“The wonderful part is it’s seamless,” Johnson said. “You can’t tell them apart, which is what I love.”
This feel-good story also extends to the street name, which recently was changed to honor Joseph Engel, one of the Charleston area’s last living Holocaust survivors.
He attended last weeks’ ceremony and was moved by the honor.
“I never thought I would live to see things like this happening to me,” he said.
So a once-blighted and derelict corner of the city, one threatened by a new highway, has become an attractive and thriving corner.
“This is a diverse neighborhood,” Westside neighborhood president Arthur Lawrence said. “Now, we have a problem in this neighborhood, and it’s a good problem.
“Everyone wants to move in.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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