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Sea rise imperils affordable housing in Charleston and other coastal areas, study finds

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PRINT drone Hagood and Line01.jpg (copy) (copy)

The intersection of Line Street and Hagood Avenue during a high tide just before noon on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Charleston. Residents in the nearby Gadsden Green public housing complex are impacted by the area's regular flooding. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Nearly 350 units of low-income housing in Charleston could be exposed to repeated coastal flooding by 2050, a new study shows, underscoring the threat of sea level rise in one of the nation's most competitive housing markets.

The hundreds of homes at risk represent 5.5 percent of the affordable housing stock researchers found in the city.

The forecast was published Dec. 1 in the journal Environmental Resource Letters. The report indicated not all the home sites are at risk of water encroaching to the interior but still may be threatened by repeated incidents.

Any loss of affordable housing stock would be considered a blow to a region the Charleston Metro Area Chamber of Commerce says needs to add more than 7,000 units a year to keep up with housing demand, with about half of those being affordable.

Norm Levine, director of the College of Charleston's Lowcountry Hazards Institute, said the methods of analysis in the paper were sound. But he said the conclusion is not terribly surprising because sea level rise is expected to impact a broad swath of homes in the Lowcountry, not just affordable ones. 

The work "is just an additional line of evidence showing that many homes are at higher risk to be impacted by increased flooding," he wrote in an email. 

In the Charleston region, much of the most affordable housing is found outside of the city limits that the study's authors analyzed. And by contrast, the low-lying, flood-prone Charleston peninsula is one of the most expensive areas for real estate. 

Geona Shaw Johnson, the city's director of Housing and Community Development, said home affordability is already a crisis in the city, even without the sea rise of the next 30 years.

Charleston didn't face the worst scenario, however, according to the study that was authored by researchers from nonprofits Climate Central and the National Housing Trust. They wrote that by 2050, more than 25,000 units of affordable housing across the country could be exposed to flooding from rising seas. 

New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts were the top three states with vulnerable homes.

For the study, researchers identified affordable housing as what is federally subsidized or is estimated to charge rent of 30 percent or less of median income, based on a rating of the building's age and quality. 

"In general, that was a lower percentage of affordable housing stock than we found in other cities with large numbers of units at risk," Benjamin Strauss, one of the report's authors, said in an email.

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Charleston is in the process of building about 600 new housing units, funded by a bond referendum that passed in 2017. It also has a program to rehabilitate older homes, which often ends up raising those homes so they're not at an elevation predicted to flood, Shaw Johnson said. 

But some older housing already faces flooding threats, like the public Gadsden Green homes, the site of disruptive tidal and rainfall inundation for decades.

Matt Fountain, Charleston's director of Stormwater Management, said some affordable housing on the East Side already is being surrounded with water during a flood.

But for middle-class homebuyers, most housing is found off the Charleston peninsula. 

Many buyers "drive until you qualify" in the tri-county area, or head to the region's edges to find a home they can pay for with a bank loan, said Josh Dix of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. 

Some homes in the range of $150,000 to $225,000 might be found in the outer West Ashley area, he said, but mostly buyers have to look outside of the city. 

Market pressure has also pushed some buyers far from downtown and into communities like North Charleston, said Nashonda Hunter, executive director of the nonprofit Charity Foundation. Among the group's goals is to preserve housing for longtime residents of the Liberty Hill community and create new affordable homes there. 

Prices are already rising nearby — Hunter said the group recently built and sold a three-bedroom, two-bath home for $180,000. But nearby, a home on the open market with one less bedroom sold for $213,000.

True to its name, the neighborhood was built on a hill as a Freedmen's settlement, and isn't as prone to flooding as other parts of the region, Hunter said. In other parts of the country, similar areas have faced the pressures of "climate gentrification," or buyers looking for land that won't flood in the future. 

In Miami, for example, investors are flocking to the higher-in-elevation Liberty City neighborhood, the Miami Herald reported

But Hunter said environmental concerns were just one of many factors that have left middle- and lower-class residents of the Charleston region struggling to find a home in their budget. 

Securing housing at attainable prices, she said, "is not going to happen overnight, unfortunately."

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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