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Efforts to address Charleston area affordable housing crisis a 'drop in the bucket'

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Union Heights homes 1.jpg

New homes rise Thursday, June 11, 2020 in Charleston's Union Heights neighborhood on Comstock Avenue that will be sold as affordable housing. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The coronavirus pandemic isn't the only crisis being faced by Charleston area residents. 

For years, the region has been grappling with a housing crisis, forcing people farther outside urban areas in search of affordable places to live.

"We travel until we can afford something," said Omar Muhammad, president of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities.

Experts have suggested the region needs thousands of affordable homes yearly for the next decade to mitigate the ongoing crisis and keep up with population growth. Municipal governments and a handful of nonprofits and private companies are trying to tackle the monstrous effort but seem to be coming up short with just a handful of units annually.

Issue for years

The crisis has been ongoing. In 2014, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments reported about 33 percent of homeowners and 50 percent of renters are living in housing they can't afford. In 2017, a Post and Courier analysis showed many people in the region can't afford to live where they work.

While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says households should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a 2018 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University showed more than 48 percent of renter households in the Charleston region are spending more than that. 

The crisis has forced many out of their dwellings. North Charleston was noted as the No. 1 city in the nation for evictions in 2018.

Nonprofits in the city have long been trying to address the crisis.

In 2016, LAMC and Metanoia executed an agreement that allowed Metanoia to begin stewarding mitigation funds given by the State Ports Authority. The money was to address the potential negative impacts of the new intermodal terminal in five North Charleston neighborhoods.

Metanoia was given $860,000 to build affordable homes, and has leveraged money from other sources. To date, the nonprofit has built 11 homes with mitigation funds and has secured land for another 21 units. Seven units are currently being constructed.

Before 2016, Metanoia had completed a little over 30 units, said the Rev. Bill Stanfield, CEO of Metanoia.

Metanoia and LAMC said it isn't nearly enough to keep pace with the area's growth.

"That's a drop in the bucket," Muhammad said. "It's piecemeal. We need a dedicated source of funding that affordable housing developers can go to.”

Wide-ranging impacts

Many of those being impacted by high costs of living live in the region's historically black neighborhoods, communities that have repeatedly been burdened by a swath of issues that make it difficult to move up the social and economic ladder.   

Stanfield pointed to recent protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd. Floyd was a black man who died in May after a white police officer knelt on his neck.

Amid Charleston's economic boom in recent years, African Americans have been left out, Stanfield said.

Union Heights Banks family.jpg

The well tended garden grows Thursday, June 11, 2020, in Donna Banks' front yard on Arbutus Ave as new homes rise in the Union Heights neighborhood that will be sold as affordable housing in Charleston. 'I think they are beautiful" said Banks who has lived in Union Heights for over 40 years about the new homes being built. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

"I think (the protests) are inclusive of other kinds of legacies that have hurt people of color," Stanfield said. "Housing has been one."

Stanfield said the days are quickly passing of North Charleston being an affordable place to live. He lives in Chicora Cherokee and repeatedly gets offers to buy his home.

Collaborative efforts

Nonprofits aren't the only ones trying to create attainable living dwellings. Private companies are collaborating with local governments to address the crisis as well.

Luxury Simplified and JJR Development LLC have collaborated to create homes on about 45 lots in Union Heights. The goal is for the homes to be sold to local first responders, military personnel, veterans, teachers, and municipal employees. The two-story, two-bedroom structures would run about $170,000 to $180,000, said Jeff Roberts, managing member at JJR. Ten properties are already underway in the African American community that once served as a vibrant hub of houses and businesses. 

A deal with the neighborhood says the homes will be kept in price range where they can be purchased with conventional mortgages, without subsidy or deed restriction. JJR also hopes "a substantial number of these new homes will be acquired by minorities." 

“We’re doing the best we can ... to bring back homeowners," Roberts said.

Roberts said collaborative efforts will be key to addressing the region's housing situation. In Union Heights, JJR worked with the city to get zoning variances, allowing a parking space on each lot. It's going to take cooperation among municipal agencies and private developers and nonprofits to help people live where they work, Roberts said.

“There really has to be many, many solutions," he said.

Across the city of Charleston, several strides have been made.

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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. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A 2001 $10 million bond produced 163 units of rental housing. In 2017, a $20 million bond referendum was approved by voters and residences are expected to begin going up this year. The city expects to produce more than 800 rental units.

Charleston has also received $8-10 million in fee in lieu payments to generate housing, and another $10 million in a settlement recently reached over a lawsuit the city filed against Charleston Citywide Local Development Corp. The money is expected to be used to generate housing.

Charleston has also received several million in federal funds since 1975 to create living spaces.

The city's first-time homeownership program, which stems back to 2004, has produced about 140 houses.

In total, the department has developed just above 10,000 homes between 1976 and 2020.

Other efforts are on the horizon. The Humanities Foundation recently obtained the Henry P. Archer School on the East Side, where there are plans to create 88 units of senior housing, said Geona Shaw Johnson, director of Charleston’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

As things move forward, nonprofit leaders are concerned about how the pandemic will exacerbate the region's housing plight.

After placing a halt on evictions amid the outbreak, South Carolina lifted the restriction in May.

"It's another crisis in the making," Muhammad said.

He said he's heard from people who need help paying their rent and mortgage.

Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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