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Where Charleston County's affordable housing referendum failed, in a narrow election

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New homes under construction in the Park West subdivision in Mount Pleasant in 2018. Voters in that area came out strongly against Charleston County's proposed affordable housing tax in a 2020 referendum. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston County asked voters in November if they would be willing to pay a modestly higher property tax to fund a new countywide affordable housing effort, and by a very slim margin that referendum failed. 

Referendum opponents claimed just over half the 199,468 votes cast, and the affordable housing measure fell short by just 3,466. 

An analysis of precinct-level returns shows that voters in the north end of Mount Pleasant provided an oversized and decisive share of the votes against the referendum. Those large precincts are home to the Dunes West, Park West and Carolina Park subdivisions.

The number of "no" votes over "yes" votes was greater in each of those three precincts than in any of the remaining 179 precincts in the county. Together, five precincts in that part of Mount Pleasant — along S.C. Highway 41 and U.S. Highway 17 north of 41 — cast 3,687 more votes against the referendum than for it.

“I think there was a big disconnect between what we’re advocating as affordable housing and what the public perceives as affordable housing," said Josh Dix, Government Affairs Director for the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, who was involved in the pro-referendum campaign. “We’re trying to get folks like public service people — police, firefighters and teachers — opportunities to live closer to where they work."

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Affordable housing advocates believe many Charleston County voters didn't understand that "affordable housing" means homes middle-class people can afford. Instead they imagine large low-income rental complexes such as Bridgeview Village Apartments in Charleston. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

With no extensive exit polling it's not possible to say why support was low in some places and high in others, but the location of precincts where most voters opposed the referendum offers some clues.

Precincts on the suburban and rural edges of Charleston, including three on Johns Island, joined northern Mount Pleasant among the top 10 that contributed the most votes against the referendum. Most of them are places that are home to newer upscale subdivisions, such at St. Paul Precinct 6 that includes the Poplar Grove development.

“Mount Pleasant has been difficult in getting affordable housing off the ground," Dix said. "On Johns Island, I think you’re just seeing a real aversion to any new housing, whatever it might be."

St. Pauls 3, a precinct that includes much of Yonges Island, Megget and the Stono Ferry golf course subdivision, had the lowest support for the referendum in the county. It was the only precinct where more than 70 percent of voters opposed the referendum.

There were 18 precincts where at least 70 percent of voters supported the referendum, mostly in Charleston and North Charleston, but they didn't have the numbers to overcome large precincts where voters opposed the measure.

Areas known for expensive real estate, where the proposed property tax would be more costly — the barrier islands and two of the Charleston peninsula's south-of-Broad precincts — also mostly had majorities opposed to the referendum. Sullivan's Island was an exception.

The referendum was opposed by a majority of voters in every precinct on Johns Island, and in 35 of 39 in Mount Pleasant. It was supported by a majority of voters in North Charleston, which has some of the county's most affordable housing.

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New homes rise Thursday, June 11, 2020, in the Union Heights neighborhood that will be sold as affordable housing in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

County Councilman Herb Sass represents the part of Mount Pleasant where the referendum took punishing losses. He said that given the state of the economy, support was actually stronger than he expected.

"I think we did the right thing, and we let the people vote," he said. "They voted a certain way, and I think we have to listen to what they said."

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Countywide, a majority of voters in 90 precincts supported the referendum, and a majority in 92 precincts opposed it, but it was the total of all the votes that decided the question. The county didn't need voter approval to create an affordable housing effort or raise the property tax, but had the referendum passed it would have made it easier for council members to vote for such measures.

The ballot question was whether to impose a property tax for affordable housing amounting to about $24 yearly for the owner-occupant of a home worth $300,000. Owners of commercial properties, second homes and rental properties worth the same amount would have had to pay $36 yearly.

That tax would have raised an estimated $8 million yearly. Charleston County provided few specifics about how the money would be used, but the goal was primarily to create more middle-income housing. 

“If it’s not clearly explained, on the language on the ballot, you’re always going to have voter confusion," said Patrick Arnold, executive director of the Charleston Home Builders Association, which supported the measure. 

The referendum was supported by an unusual coalition of business organizations and social service organizations. Some cited the area's housing affordability crisis and others spoke of the challenge of finding employees when few could afford to live nearby, and the traffic created by long commutes.

There was no organized opposition to the referendum. Supporters were optimistic because Charleston County voters have repeatedly approved higher taxes — sales taxes — to build schools and roads and protect green space, and city of Charleston voters supported a $20 million affordable housing measure several years ago.

Dix said there are several likely reasons the referendum failed, including:

  • The pro-referendum campaign had limited funds, and didn't focus on northern Mount Pleasant, Johns Island and other areas that proved crucial.
  • Voters remain confused about what affordable housing means, and confuse it with low-income government housing.
  • The county's decision to add a second question about borrowing potentially $130 million against the new tax made it less popular.

“There were probably eight precincts where we did extremely poorly," said Dix. "Those were areas the campaign didn’t pay much attention to."

“In hindsight, the areas we didn’t target and pay much attention to made the difference," he said.

Meanwhile, Charleston County Council members and county staff stayed quiet. In 2012 in Berkeley County, a school tax referendum was approved by voters, but the school’s superintendent and communications director were later found guilty of ethics charges related to using public money to advocate for its approval.

When all the votes were counted, the referendum failed by 50.88 percent to 49.12 percent.

“I’m hopeful we’ll be able to re-address it when the new (county) council comes in, in January," said Dix.

The county has no specific plan now to address affordable housing, but has asked a task force to consider ways to move forward after the failure of the referendum.

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

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