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Boom & Balance

More than 400 affordable apartments are coming to the Charleston peninsula

The city of Charleston and numerous partners are constructing more than 400 affordable apartments on the peninsula in and around the area where the old Cooper River bridges once stood.

It's a large step toward addressing the area's affordable housing crisis, one that relies on a complex financial mix of city funding, public-private partnerships, new approaches to affordable housing-creation and state and federal incentives.

Completion of the developments would mark the realization of promises that date to Mayor Joe Riley's administration to reknit the East Side community that was torn asunder by the two former Cooper River bridges and create housing for residents with below-average incomes.

“I think Charleston has done the most in South Carolina," said Tracy Doran, executive director of the nonprofit Humanities Foundation, which is developing two of the apartment complexes.

“The city has provided capital," she said. "It’s been a priority for them, and that shows."

Most of the rental housing will not be government-owned, and the rents won't be government-subsidized. Rather, public funds are helping to create the housing and the rents will be limited to a portion of tenants' incomes, in most cases as a condition of state and federal tax credits that help finance construction.

For example, some units will be restricted to people who earn no more than 30 percent of the area's median income, which works out to $17,000 for a single person.

For other units, a tenant could earn up to 80 percent of that threshold — that's $45,000, and for a small number of units at Grace Homes, as much as $85,050.

In each case the rent would be based on the tenant's income — typically, limited to 30 percent of qualifying income. Under federal standards, housing that costs more than 30 percent of income is considered unaffordable.

Awaiting construction

Five of the six apartment complexes haven't yet been built, but the city has been signing agreements and transferring, swapping or leasing land to the developers.

Most of the mid-rise apartment buildings planned will have units for tenants with different income levels. That's a relatively new approach, aimed at both creating rental housing for working people with very low incomes, but also for those with moderate incomes whose rent payments can help pay for building upkeep and repairs.

The area where the bridge ramps once stood, between Meeting and East Bay streets from Cooper Street to Lee Street, will be home to three of the new apartment complexes. One of them, Grace Homes, has been completed and tenants are moving in.

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An affordable-housing apartment building that will be constructed in the open space close to the new Grace Homes, pictured Feb. 12, 2021, will be named after one of Charleston’s longest-serving city councilmen, James Lewis. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The James Lewis Jr. Apartments will follow, across Nassau Street from Grace Homes. Site-preparation work should be underway in the next 60 days.

Across Hanover Street from the James Lewis Jr. Apartments, the Humanities Foundation will build apartments for seniors. Along with Grace Homes, all three apartment complexes will occupy land once dominated by the two bridges.

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The vacant Henry P. Archer School on Nassau Street will become affordable housing for seniors. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Blocks away, the former Archer School will become affordable apartments for seniors.

"We felt there is a need for seniors, on the peninsula,"  Doran said.

At 573 Meeting St. there will be apartments for people transitioning from homelessness, and more apartments for tenants with very low to moderate incomes will rise at the end of F Street behind 670 King St.

“We’ve been working hard to make it happen," said Geona Johnson, Charleston's housing director. "The community needs it."

Costly land a hurdle

As with most residential developments, the initial challenges have been financing and acquiring land. Several of the properties came under the city's control after the replacement Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge was constructed and the older Grace and Pearman bridges were demolished.

The city also has a robust budget for creating affordable housing, largely thanks to a voter-approved $20 million fund. That 2017 vote was the second time Charleston city voters agreed that the city should borrow millions to fund affordable housing.

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Also helping to fund affordable housing are the proceeds from a 1984, $10 million loan that helped build Charleston Place in the 1980s. The loan was repaid with interest, with $10 million going toward the city's housing efforts in 2019 and another $9 million going into a Charleston Citywide Local Development Corporation loan fund, also for housing efforts.

Add up the funding, and Charleston has the most well-financed affordable housing effort in the state.

But the city isn't building any of the six affordable apartment complexes itself. Instead, it's working with a multitude of partners — private developers, nonprofit groups and the Charleston Housing Authority. They, in turn, are working with the state to secure low-income bond financing and low-income housing tax credits.

Developers that receive tax credits typically sell those tax credits to banks, and the banks can resell them and also claim credit for investing in lower-income communities. The developers use the proceeds to finance construction.

An ongoing effort

While creating more than 400 units of affordable rental housing in one part of the city is unprecedented in modern times, the city has for years been creating affordable housing, ranging from individual homes for ownership to apartment buildings. The results can be seen not just on the peninsula, but on Daniel Island, in West Ashley and on James and Johns islands.

For example, on Feb. 17 the city cut the ribbon on a new single-family home in the Rosemont community, in the Neck Area, which will be sold at a below-market price to a moderate-income family.

Cooper St.jpg

A city-owned house at 36 Cooper St. will become a multifamily rental property for people earning below-average incomes, pictured Feb. 12, 2021, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The city has also created affordable single-family homes in the bridge area, on Lee and Cooper streets, and some small multifamily rental properties in the same area.

While the affordable housing effort is citywide, the former bridge area was always seen as a special case.

“That whole area will be turned into housing, because that’s what was there before the bridges," said long-time Councilman Robert Mitchell, who represents the East Side and is a former housing counselor.

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Explosives blast the last of the Pearman Bridge as the old Cooper River bridges are demolished following completion of the Ravenel Bridge in 2005. Demolition of the Pearman and Grace bridges created blocks of empty land on the Charleston peninsula, where affordable housing is being built. File/Staff

The bridge area is one of many examples of places where a predominantly black community was damaged, where housing was eliminated and the community split, due to a large public project. There, it was the bridges, but elsewhere it was the Septima P. Clark Parkway (Crosstown Expressway), or Interstate 26, or the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.

Homes near jobs

Of the apartments that will be created, many will be for tenants with low to moderate incomes — the sort of incomes one might earn working in the city's hospitality industry, whether as a restaurant worker or a hotel employee.

“We recognize that the need for affordable housing is across the board, and are trying to address that," said Johnson.

Affordable apartment complexes with a range of income restrictions are quite different from the subsidized low-income housing the Charleston Housing Authority owns and operates. The authority owns 516 units in the same area, from Line Street to Huger Street between King Street and East Bay Street/Morrison Drive, and most are subsidized low-income units.

In the city's view, the area's blend of existing low-income housing, market-rate housing, and new affordable housing will serve a wide range of incomes. 

“If you have people who can live on the peninsula, where they work, that can eliminate some traffic," said Mitchell.

The city has structured some of the developments so they will remain affordable for the long term. In two cases, the Lewis Apartments and the Lowline Housing apartments, Charleston owns the land but will lease it to developers on a long-term basis.

That lowers the cost of development in a city where an acre of land on the peninsula can sell for over $10 million. After 60 years, the city will own the land, and can take possession of the buildings.

Another complex, Grace Homes, is owned by the Charleston Housing Authority, and the city contributed to that project by donating the land and kicking in $2.3 million toward construction.

Right now, the majority of the six properties where new apartments are planned are vacant lots, but by the end of next year, they could be affordable homes occupied by hundreds. 

573 Meeting Street.jpg

The original footprint of the first site of the homeless shelter, One80 Place, runs along Meeting Street, where the shelter is planning to turn the now-vacant property into an affordable housing complex, seen Feb. 12, 2021, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Reach David Slade at dslade@postandcourier.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

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