Lowline affordable housing

This is a sample rendering of what a new affordable housing complex could look like on F Street, a city-owned property that will face the new Lowcountry Lowline linear park. Charleston Design Center/Provided.

The city of Charleston has the land and detailed plans for two new affordable housing projects on the peninsula. Now, it just needs developers to build them. 

The city put both projects out to bid recently, and developers have until early next week to submit proposals. If all goes as planned, the housing could be under construction by the end of 2021, City Planner Jacob Lindsey said.

One is a 45-unit complex envisioned for a vacant parcel on F Street that the city acquired when it purchased the 1.6-acre tract along an old railway for the construction of the Lowcountry Lowline

Lindsey said the city expects the new linear park for bicyclists and pedestrians will inevitably increase land values on surrounding properties, so putting affordable housing in the pipeline now will help ensure a mix of housing options remains in that neighborhood. 

The other project in the works is a complex with up to 60 units on a nearly 1-acre parcel between Nassau, Hanover, Lee and Cooper streets. The city acquired the property once the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge opened and the old Cooper River Bridge ramps were removed from the site, which is why it's often referred to as the Cooper River Bridge Redevelopment Area. 

City leaders have promised to redevelop that property in a way that would “reknit” the East Side community that was divided by the old bridges in the 1960s. Putting affordable housing there has been one of the top goals for decades but past plans have repeatedly fallen through.

The Charleston region has been in the grips of an affordable housing shortage for years, and the peninsula has become one of the priciest housing markets, especially for renters. That's driving away many longtime residents and it's putting a strain on the workforce for the hospitality industry, which is anchored downtown.

With Charleston's high construction costs and land prices, building truly affordable housing has become increasingly difficult. Since these two properties are owned by the city, the land can be leased to developers for below-market rates. 

The city has also primed these projects for success in other ways. 

Possible floor plans have already been envisioned by the city's Design Division to give developers an idea of what's expected and what would likely be approved by the various permitting boards. 

For instance, the Design Center has drafted sample renderings for the F street property that adheres to the area's height limits and includes the mix of units the city would like to see: 24 studios and one-bedroom units, 12 two-bedroom units and nine three-bedroom units. Including larger units ensures the building can accommodate families.

"It’s not common for cities to do that level of work upfront," Lindsey said. "We feel like it’s important for us to do everything possible to help housing succeed, and that’s why we’re doing the design on the front-end."

Rental rates in at least a quarter of the units have to be affordable for people earning 50 percent or less of the area's median income, which is a maximum salary of $37,500 for a family of four. All other units have to be affordable for people earning no more than 60 percent, which is $44,700 for a family of four. 

Developers would likely rely on Low Income Housing Tax Credits to fund the bulk of these projects, which is always a challenge. There's a limited pool of money the State Housing Finance & Development Authority distributes each year to the projects that meet the standardized criteria. 

However, it could be easier for downtown projects to receive some of those funds this year. The city worked with the agency on new scoring criteria for 2019 that loosens parking requirements and reduces the minimum sizes for units. 

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.