After the exposure of poor living conditions and deterioration that led to a failing grade from federal housing inspectors, officials in charge of Charleston's Joseph Floyd Manor say they're on the way to securing a better future for the building and its residents.
In May, The Post and Courier first reported about infestations of bedbugs and other vermin, as well as long-term neglect at the high-rise on Mount Pleasant Street, which houses some of the Holy City's poorest and most vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities.
Following several articles noting problems at the 70-year-old building, the Charleston County Housing and Redevelopment Authority's CEO was fired and county officials later voted to remove the housing board's chairman.
New leadership at the housing authority worked to correct immediate issues, while Charleston residents and nonprofit organizations rallied to raise money and get essential items like face masks, sanitary equipment, clothing and other supplies to the building's occupants.
But for several months, what would come next hinged on an emergency inspection by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Originally slated to happen in July, it was pushed back to late October because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. By late November, results of the probe were in: The building earned a 19 out of a possible 100 points.
Sandino Moses, the county housing authority's chairman, said he and his staff are working to correct all the issued flagged by inspectors while also developing a long-term solution for Joseph Floyd Manor residents.
He and his team are wrestling with one overarching question: Can the building be saved or does it need to be torn down?
Photos: South Carolina lawmakers and officials tour living conditions at Joseph Floyd Manor
Touring Joseph Floyd Manor with S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard and Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby. The two lawmakers are touring the senior housing facility a week after it was first reported that residents were suffering under bad conditions inside.
"That is what we're talking about now," Moses said. "The elephant in the room is that Joseph Floyd Manor was built in 1950. To keep putting money into it when we know it's so old and outdated, they don't even make high-rises anymore like that. We would like to move forward with another (building)."
The board has started reaching out to developers to see if there is interest in building a modern high-rise at the same location, he said.
Moses said he's heard residents' concerns over possibly being displaced if Joseph Floyd Manor is deemed too deteriorated to save. But he said he wants to reassure them that the housing authority's goal is not to write off the building or its residents and that they would "fight tooth and nail" to make sure any new building would be dedicated entirely to affordable housing.
Residents at the current building are trapped by an unusual set of circumstances, he said. Although the building has fallen into disrepair, its location is ideally suited to meeting residents' needs. The seniors and others living there have access to grocery stores, hospitals and other essential services close by, an ease of access Moses said he knows is essential to their well being and not easily replicated at other public housing facilities in the region.
"We don't want to take that away from them," he said. "Our job is to provide affordable and safe housing for the disabled and the elderly and to help them economically and with their personal development."
Ultimately, what Moses envisions is a new Joseph Floyd Manor built to modern codes and standards with the rents kept at the low levels seen in the current building — some residents have told The Post and Courier they pay about $250 per month — and essential social services on site.
"We want to give everyone there the opportunity to have everything they need at hand," he said.
For now, however, a long-term plan is still at least months away. Moses said he and his staff are focused on first correcting the violations noted by federal housing inspectors. He hopes to narrow down a list of developers to one or two firms within the first five months of 2021 so that work can begin on seeing if a new building is doable.
Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby said he hopes to see his colleagues take an active role in helping the housing authority board of commissioners find a permanent fix.
"We need to get in the fight with them," Darby said. "If we are in the position to help, then why not help. It's not just Joseph Floyd Manor. We're talking citizens. We're talking residents. We're talking our fellow Americans here. If our neighbor is in distress, we ought to be neighborly."
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he's optimistic for the building's future but recognizes the challenges at hand.
Although the county housing authority, which operates as an independent enterprise outside of Charleston County Council's budget and daily control, is the only entity that has direct oversight over the building, Gilliard said he encourages all local officials to get involved in whatever way they can, regardless of whether they have direct responsibility for the building.
"We all have a stake in this," he said. "It should be all levels of government working together."
Gilliard said he plans to reach out to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., to see if there is anything that can be done at the federal level to secure funding for the county housing authority or to ease the burden of a 2006 loan that officials say has hampered the authority's ability to make needed repairs and preventative maintenance.
"We have the people in place," he said. "All we need to generate is concern, awareness and results."
For Gilliard, it's especially important to save Joseph Floyd Manor and to secure a future on the Charleston peninsula for the poor and people of modest means who've largely been driven out of the area by years of rampant gentrification.
"This is our last stand, our last stronghold," he said. "We can turn this thing around."