Workforce housing’s long road to nowhere

A development group had hoped to build 25 homes here, one-third of which would have been priced lower to meet the town’s demand for more affordable, workforce housing. But the project didn’t pan out.

MOUNT PLEASANT — For almost a decade, developers tried to build affordable housing on 5 wooded acres at Rifle Range and Porchers Bluff roads.

Most agreed there was plenty of demand for it in this fast-growing town with relatively high housing prices, and plans emerged for 25 single-family homes, almost one-third of which would be relatively less expensive to buy. But in the end, no one could pull it off.

Cathy Kleiman, part of the Harmony Homes LLC venture, has been in the affordable housing field for years and worked on and off here since 2006. It was a frustrating journey.

“The numbers didn’t work, then the entire economy tanked, then the banks changed their lending policies, then the (town’s workforce housing) ordinance got changed,” she said. “It was very difficult.”

The struggles of this project illustrate the difficulties facing those trying to create more affordable housing here — and might point to a problem in a town ordinance designed to encourage it.

Harmony Homes’ site wasn’t ideal: The 5 acres were far from existing bus routes or employment centers, but the price — $825,000 in 2006 — was right.

That’s one of the biggest challenges facing those who would develop affordable housing: Higher land prices in the core of the metro area. Those prices drop farther out, but then residents will be more in need of their own cars.

The town recently turned away a planned workforce housing project near Awendaw, in part because residents criticized its distance from public transit and the increased car traffic it would bring. The developer argued that was where land values would make the numbers work.

Mayor Linda Page said she was concerned that the Porchers Bluff and Rifle Range site was too far from public transportation.

But Kleiman and others still felt a 25-unit development, where eight or nine would be relatively more affordable, would work on the site.

And her team got the property rezoned as a workforce housing planned development, which allows greater density provided that a third of the units are dedicated to residents who make no more than 80 percent of the metro area’s median family income (or no more than 120 percent if the units are sold, not rented).

The project was delayed by the onset of the recession in 2008, but Harmony kept up hope that it eventually could break ground.

The only workforce housing planned developments include one along U.S. Highway 17 near Wando High School and The Boulevard apartment complex on Coleman Boulevard, which spurred a backlash against so-called “bonus densities,” including one for workforce housing.

The idea for this kind of planned development stemmed from a town task force that looked at what the town can do to encourage new development that would help those on the lower end of the wage scale to live closer to their work.

Recent Census figures show that 25,777 town residents work outside the town, while 17,377 workers in the town commute into it.

Michelle Mapp with the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, which advocates for and assists affordable housing developments, said she has talked with the town about why its workforce housing ordinance hasn’t produced more results.

Mapp said the town’s commuting numbers “is a direction correlation of the mismatch between jobs and housing — and the provision of housing for people who actually work in Mount Pleasant at restaurants, doctors’ offices and service industries.”

Both Mapp and Kleiman agreed that one provision — one designed to remove any stigma from workforce housing and to make it more acceptable to neighbors — needs a closer look.

That provision requires all the units to look alike, even though they will be sold at different price points.

“If I’m a developer trying to build a mixed-income neighborhood, all of the houses have to be cookie-cutter, with the same lot size and the same exterior,” Mapp said. “If I’m a bank, when I do the appraisals, why would I appraise the market rate any different from the affordable units?”

Kleiman said that proved to the final nail in the Porchers’ project’s coffin. “It’s a lender problem. It’s an appraisal problem,” she said. “It’s really crazy.”

This month, Town Council is expected to rezone the 5 acres back to a traditional single-family housing category that will allow no more than 15 homes.

Page said she thinks the 3-unit per acre density is more appropriate for the area, but the town will continue to look at ways to try to make more affordable housing possible in other places.

Even if this project has succeeded, Page said she has another issue with the town’s workforce housing ordinance.

“The intention is great,” she said. “I think we all strive to have workforce housing in our community. The challenge is the time frame.”

Even if the Porchers Bluff project had been built, its more affordable units only would have been locked into a lower price for 10 years.

“Ten years is the blink of an eye,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with that aspect of it.”

Even though the tide in town is moving against bonus densities — spurred in part by the mixed reaction to the Boulevard and concern about other proposed apartment projects — Page said the town will continue to talk about improving its policies for workforce housing as it tackles bonus densities and related concerns.

“The need isn’t going to go away in 10 years,” she said. “There are going to be lots more conversations about workforce housing.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.