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The Charleston Forum finds agreement on housing problems, disagreement on solutions

Grace Homes sign.jpg

Site Superintendent Kevin Heagle, with MB Khan Construction tours the nearly completed Grace Homes, affordable housing units Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Across age, race and political affiliation, there's broad agreement that the tri-county Charleston area does not have enough affordable housing.

There's also broad agreement, in responses to an online poll conducted for The Charleston Forum, that economic pressures are one reason Black residents are moving out of certain neighborhoods — an acknowledgement of the well-documented gentrification ongoing in some areas.

“It’s certainly a problem that’s affected the Black community in the tri-county area, but it’s not exclusive to the tri-county community," said Forum CEO Brian Duffy.

The Charleston Forum was created in 2016 in response to the 2015 massacre of nine Black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist. The Forum hosted lectures to discuss race across multiple topics, with a goal of developing potential solutions to disparities, and conducted a survey of Charleston-area residents that's meant to drive conversations about local policy.

A lack of affordable housing in the Charleston area, and gentrification — particularly on the Charleston peninsula — have been community-wide topics of interest for decades.

“One of the big (survey) takeaways, I thought, was the broad agreement across all demographics that there is not enough affordable housing," Duffy said. “To me, that really creates an opportunity for leadership in our tri-county area to address the problem."

Within Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, some towns and cities have worked hard on affordable housing issues, particularly the city of Charleston. Others have done little, if anything, while leaving the creation of affordable housing up to nonprofit groups and developers.

Questions about the appropriate role of government are where some large differences of opinion between white and Black respondents surfaced in The Charleston Forum survey.

Nearly half the white survey-takers — 46.7 percent — said this statement best reflected their personal view: "Individual choice and market forces, exclusively, should determine who lives in certain communities."

Just 15.7 percent of Black survey-takers chose that statement.

“If the market was going to produce affordable housing, they would have done it already," said Geona Shaw Johnson, Charleston's director of Housing and Development. "I think the government needs to be involved, because the missions are different."

Close to half of Black respondents in The Charleston Forum survey, 44 percent, most-agreed with this statement: "Both market forces and some limited government involvement is required to maintain racial balance in our communities."

So did 30 percent of white respondents.

The least popular survey option, selected by 22.9 percent of Blacks and 6.6 percent of whites, did not mention "market forces" and said "The government should play a role in maintaining racial balance in our communities."

The unusual wording of two of the survey choices, which referred not to affordable housing but to "maintaining racial balance in our communities," was related to the issue of gentrification, Duffy said.

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Site Superintendent Kevin Heagle, with MB Khan Construction tours the nearly completed Grace Homes, affordable housing units, with Charleston Housing Authority's Tracy Schumacher on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Gentrification is generally understood to mean when residents of a community — renters in particular — and sometimes businesses are priced out because of an influx of people willing to pay more to rent or buy there. That usually goes hand-in-hand with new development and redevelopment in a community, such as the growing number of luxury apartment buildings, offices and restaurants on the upper Charleston peninsula.

Johnson said the city's role in ensuring diversity is to help make housing available to people at all levels of income. The city expects to develop nearly 2,100 housing units for rent or ownership in the next three to five years by itself or with partners.

New affordable housing on Charleston's East Side includes flood prevention measures (copy)

Charleston's Housing Authority CEO Don Cameron looks on as construction workers top off one of the Grace Homes affordable housing buildings on Cooper Street on Dec. 2, 2019. File/Mikaela Porter/Staff

Grace Homes, for example, is being built by the Charleston Housing Authority, but the city provided the land and more than $2 million in funding. The 62-unit apartment building on Cooper Street, near Meeting Street, will have rentals priced for people earning between 30 percent and 150 percent of the area's median income.

"It almost goes without saying that the need (for affordable housing) is there across the board for persons of various races," she said. “I think it is up to the government to make sure that access is available to all people."

The city's voters agreed, by supporting a $20 million bond referendum in 2017 to finance affordable housing.

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Grace Homes, a new affordable housing apartment complex at Cooper and Meeting streets in Charleston, nearing completion Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Cities across the nation have been experiencing gentrification because, at least until the coronavirus pandemic, large numbers of people were moving into cities. Their demand for housing raised rents and home prices in previously affordable urban neighborhoods in cities across the nation.

That's a large part of the reason the Charleston peninsula's population went from nearly two-thirds Black to two-thirds white between 1980 and 2010.

On the peninsula, the demographic shift was a reversal of the "white flight" era, when the population went from majority white to majority Black between 1950 and 1980, as white residents left the area's urban center for nearby suburbs.

High rents and expensive homes in desirable locations are problems for people of all races, but in the Charleston area Black residents on average have substantially lower incomes and higher rates of poverty.

In 2018, one national study found that majority-black North Charleston had the nation's highest rate of evictions, although the city has some of the Charleston area's more affordable rents.

Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, participated in The Charleston Forum's panel discussion on economics in 2018. The housing crisis cannot be solved, she said in July, without addressing wages and lending practices.

“It all comes from not paying a living wage," she said. "And the government has allowed a type of borrowing that keeps people in that debt cycle."

Eviction in South Carolina (copy) (copy)

Even when the economy was roaring, before the coronavirus pandemic, South Carolina counties had high rates of evictions according to data published by Princeton University's Eviction Lab report in 2018.  

Appleseed has long criticized South Carolina's lack of regulation of the payday loan and title loan industries which provide very high interest loans to people who tend to have low incomes.

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Scott Grissom, with Future Innovations Construction, hangs blinds in units of the new Grace Homes on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

“If you’re borrowing and putting your car up as collateral and paying 300 percent interest, and your payments are so high you’ll eventually lose your car, and then you won’t be able to get to work — that all leads to people being unable to keep up with rent or build the assets to buy a house," Berkowitz said. "It’s all tied together.”

South Carolina homeowners, at least, have been largely protected from gentrification. Rising property taxes are often a feature of gentrification, but South Carolina's 2007 overhaul of the property tax system built in tax protections for homeowners, as long as they don't move.

Renters are at the mercy of market forces. 

“This is not a North Charleston or Charleston issue, it’s a regional issue,” said Omar Muhammad, president of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities in North Charleston, in a 2019 interview. “It’s an issue in Mount Pleasant because people can’t afford to live where they work.”

Local governments generally don't play a direct role in "maintaining racial balance" — an issue raised in The Charleston Forum survey — but they do play a large indirect role through zoning regulations and efforts to create affordable housing.

Fair housing rules and loan regulations come primarily from the federal government, which in the 20th century had a history of discriminatory practices, such as redlining and loan discrimination. Rules have changed, but this month President Donald Trump threatened to revoke fair housing rules created during the Obama administration.

Banks and mortgage lenders have opposed the administration's plan to make it harder to bring housing discrimination cases, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Trump in a July 14 press conference according to the official White House transcript said that the Obama-era rules meant to create more affordable housing were radical, and would "abolish the suburbs" and make "housing values drop like a rock." 

One method Charleston has used to create affordable housing, which should be easy for towns and cities to copy, is to require either the creation of affordable housing or a donation of land to the city when development agreements for large, new subdivisions are negotiated.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

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