Rental rates at Charleston's newest affordable housing complex are raising eyebrows as critics say monthly costs are far too high to be considered affordable.
The Grace Homes at 110 and 114 Cooper St. on the city's East Side opened for pre-leasing applications Oct. 1. Since then, the monthly rental rates have generated criticism on social media where some Charlestonians called out what they saw as sky-high rents.
Don Cameron, CEO of the Charleston Housing Authority, which owns and operates the new development, said the listed rent doesn't paint the whole picture.
"We build 62 apartments of affordable housing and set aside 35 for low-income families on the Section 8 program," Cameron said.
According to the Housing Authority, the cheapest, one-bedroom units at Grace go for $1,164 per month. To qualify, the applicant has to make a minimum of $14,400 per year and a maximum of $28,300.
Critics were swift to point out that someone making the minimum salary would have just $432 left over for the entire year after paying for their housing. Someone at the maximum income threshold would have $14,332 left after paying rent.
Cameron and other housing officials said they recognize the listed rents could be considered high, but they said the rates are in line with what federal housing officials consider to be fair, and Section 8 and other assistance programs help bring costs down for those at the lowest income brackets.
"For families on Section 8 anywhere in Charleston County, they should look at Grace Homes," Cameron said. "While we have over 1,500 families on that program, 40 percent do not live in the city due to the cost of apartments. Grace is the first effort to attract some of those low-income families back to the city."
Ulric Waldron, a resident of Joseph Floyd Manor on the upper Charleston peninsula, said hearing about the rental prices at the Grace Homes was a shock.
"For that kind of price, if you're getting a subsidy it'd be alright," Waldron said. "They passed out applications for Section 8 in my building a couple days ago."
Joseph Floyd Manor is owned and operated by the Charleston County Housing and Redevelopment Authority but is within Charleston city limits. The building, which houses seniors and people with disabilities, caters mostly to those far below the poverty line and came under scrutiny this spring when reports surfaced of poor living conditions.
Waldron said he pays $269 per month in rent. Other tenants also reported paying similar amounts.
Although he hopes to be accepted into Section 8, Waldron said he doubts he will. He knows no one in his building who has.
He and others living there say they're afraid of having nowhere else to go.
But Grace Homes could still be a sign of hope.
The project was born out of a new approach to affordable housing aimed at promoting socioeconomic diversity, said Geona Shaw Johnson, Charleston's Housing and Community Development director.
The city owned the land and provided it plus $2.3 million to the city Housing Authority for the project, which broke ground in 2018, Johnson said.
"We’ve asked for (the) affordability to exist in perpetuity," she said.
Typically, affordable housing projects have focused in on a specific income group, but the Grace Homes are different, Johnson said. Rather than develop based on one socioeconomic bracket, the city and housing authority decided to go for a mixed approach that has workforce housing as well as apartments set aside for low-income tenants.
"Affordable housing is a step ladder," Cameron said. "You have the people on the first rung up to people just starting out trying to get their first home. We try to serve all those people."
Serving a mixed population, where those who can afford to pay more for units than those who qualify for low-income assistance, also helps make sure the project is economically feasible, Cameron and Johnson said.
Charleston-area leaders have also banded together in support of a proposed affordable housing trust fund that would use a property tax increase to fund housing projects around the county.
It would generate $8 million yearly for 20 years to fund affordable housing efforts. The referendum also seeks voter permission to borrow the money upfront, raising up to $130 million right away, which would be repaid as the tax is collected.
And more projects are underway.
Last year, the city announced a proposed affordable housing development to be named after former City Councilman James Lewis Jr.
That building will contain 64 units aimed at those living at 60 percent and below the median area income, Johnson said.
Plans are underway to renovate the former Henry P. Archer School on Nassau Street into affordable units for seniors, and One80 Place, which operates a homeless shelter and other services, has plans to develop 70 apartments for those at a very low income level, she said.
"This is the spark," Johnson said. "We’ve been working on it a very long time."