While living in a West Ashley apartment, Lisa McLean spent more than half of her income on rent, lights and phone.


The following breaks down the percentage of tri-county residents who live in places beyond their means:

Charleston County

35% homeowners

50% renters

Berkeley County

28% homeowners

41% renters

Dorchester County

30% homeowners

44% renters

Source: Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Housing Needs Assessment

"I was always stretching it," she said.

Now she owns a North Charleston house that costs less than one-third of her take-home pay for monthly mortgage, taxes, insurance and utilities.

"I don't feel like I have a noose around my neck," she said.

McLean is a fortunate one. For many people like her, there is a "critical" shortage of affordable housing in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, according to a new study.

Those affected include teachers, police officers and workers in the tri-county's largely service-based economy, says the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Housing Needs Assessment.

More than 53,000 homeowners and almost 40,000 rental households in the area spend too much of their income on housing, said Kathryn Basha, planning director for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.

Overspending is defined as more than 30 percent of monthly take-home pay to cover mortgage payment or rent, utilities, taxes and insurance.

A worker must earn $42.65 per hour to afford the average-priced home in the Lowcountry. For renters, $16.60 hourly is required to pay for the typical two-bedroom apartment, the study says.

"Housing affordability greatly impacts the ability to retain existing business and attract new industries," the report says.

In Charleston County, 35 percent of homeowners and 50 percent of renters live in places beyond their means. For Berkeley County, 41 percent of renters and 28 percent of those who own homes spend too much for housing as a percentage of income. Some 44 percent of Dorchester County renters and 30 percent of homeowners fit that category, the report says.

Charleston is among locations nationally where housing affordability deteriorated the most in 2013, according to a story posted this week on Yahoo!

The article, based on an analysis of data from the research firm RealtyTrac, puts the Holy City at No. 10 on a list of places where ordinary people have trouble affording a home.

Factors in the ranking included a 5 percent increase in average minimum household income needed to qualify for a median-priced home. Charleston County received an affordability rating of 89 based on median income as a percentage of the required income for a typical home purchase. Areas with a rating below 100 are less affordable, the report says.

For McLean, 51, getting an affordable home was a life-changing event, but it also was a return to the sort of existence she knew as a child growing up at the corner of Columbus and Drake streets in Charleston. There, she was one of six kids raised at her maternal grandmother's house.

"It was always my desire to get back in a house," she said.

She likes growing flowers and gardening in the backyard of her two-story, three-bedroom home on Proctor Street, where she lives with a son who is a high school sophomore. Another son is away at college on a basketball scholarship.

"It's wonderful to know that I'm not giving away my money to somebody else. It just feels great to be able to have a place to call home," she said.

McLean works as a secretary for the Charleston Department of Parks earning $32,000 annually. She was looking for a home with the help of a real estate agent who showed her the new $130,000 Metanoia-built house on Proctor Street.

Metanoia reduced the purchase price for McLean with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Lowcountry Housing Trust and Metanoia helped her with the down payment, officials said.

Metanoia is a 10-year-old faith-based group that works to improve the quality of life for Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood residents. Those interested in its services may contact the organization at the office space it rents from St. Matthew Baptist Church on Reynolds Avenue.

A shortage of affordable housing spurs people to live in less expensive, outlying areas, which feeds urban sprawl while causing higher commuting costs and more traffic congestion, according to the report prepared by the COG and the Charleston County Zoning and Planning Department.

Karen Hauck, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, said the study paints a new, detailed picture of the need for affordable workforce housing.

"Until you see the numbers, it doesn't really hit home," she said.

In addition to cheaper housing, the study recommends higher hourly wages and salaries. Businesses that pay better wages should be recruited, it says. The report suggests establishment of a regional housing coordination office. It would provide technical assistance to local governments on the affordable housing issue and help form public/private partnerships to address the problem.

"To ensure that the housing affordability crisis that is outlined in this document does not persist and gain strength, housing issues must be advocated for at all levels of government, as well as in local communities, in a coordinated effort," the report says.