From houses to homes

Danny Havens has made this house his home on Lee Street downtown. The house was one of three the city placed there after moving them out of the path of the Ravenel Bridge.

Six years ago, the houses were hauled to Charleston's Lee Street on flatbed trucks, most of them in poor repair, with their windows boarded up and new addresses chalked on the front doors.

They were among nine houses removed from the path of construction of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, given to the city, and taken to new locations to be renovated and sold to first-time home buyers.

Danny Havens got the keys to the last of those houses in March, making him a homeowner and successfully completing a city initiative aimed at reusing houses the state would otherwise have torn down.

"I was just driving by one day on the way to the post office and saw the sign," said Havens, 24, who was considering home ownership this spring because his lease was due to expire.

He now lives next door to Emily Cox, who purchased a city-renovated house in 2006, and two doors down from Orlando Newkirk, who bought one of the first houses completed in the fall of 2005.

"I got my pick," Newkirk said Friday. "I like where I'm living."

The homeowners all benefitted from city subsidies that priced the freshly-renovated houses well below market value, in some cases less than half the price that vacant fixer-uppers were selling for elsewhere in the East Side.

The trade-offs include being the only homeowners on the 70 block of Lee Street, where neighbors include a vacant house, an empty gas station, and an open field that the city plans to redevelop.

Charleston's Homeownership Initiative has sold 90 homes to first-time buyers during the past five years, including 42 condominiums recently completed in the Longborough neighborhood.

The homes are sold to buyers with moderate incomes.

Some of the houses are new construction but many are rehab jobs in marginal neighborhoods, which have improved the quality of housing in the community while putting new homeowners in place, people with a stake in the future of places like Lee Street.

Lee Street borders the large area where the old Cooper River bridges came down on the peninsula. Demolition of the old bridges created a large expanse of open land bounded by Lee and Cooper streets, with Meeting Street at one end and Morrison Drive, and the pedestrian and bike path over the new bridge, at the other end.

The city hopes to turn that land into a new community of homes and businesses. New roads and sidewalks have been installed, but the effort has not moved as quickly as once hoped, and the state has yet to transfer all of the properties to the city.

Newkirk said that when he moved into his house, there were people camping out in the bushes where the old bridges once stood, and there were drug deals taking place within sight of his house.

"It was tough for a while because there was a lot of drug traffic at Nassau and Lee street," he said. "That got cleaned up, and now it's probably the quietest spot on the East Side."

For Havens, the house he found on Lee Street represented an opportunity to own for the price of rent. His 1,033-square-foot house was built in the 1800s and features original wood floors and high ceilings.

"Everyone has been really nice, and it seems like a safe neighborhood," Havens said. "I'm just excited to put some paint on the walls and get it together."

The city spent $132,449 on Havens' house and sold it to him for $109,000, according to Geona Johnson, director of Charleston's Department of Housing and Community Development.

The Homeownership Initiative works by subsidizing the sale prices of the houses and condos and selling them with restrictions on future resale prices in order to keep them affordable. The city subsidies stay with the house, and Charleston County taxes the homes based on the subsidized prices.

The sale of the final "bridge house" on Lee Street, to Havens, coincides with a flurry of city home sales to first-time buyers, many of whom also have benefitted from a new $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time homeowners this year.

Havens said he wasn't aware of the new federal tax credit and is thrilled to be getting it. The credit will cover nearly a year's worth of mortgage and insurance payments.

Havens studied economics at the College of Charleston and said he wasn't concerned about the city restrictions on resale profits. The city requires that if a home in the Homeownership Initiative is resold, it must be resold for no more than the original price plus the cumulative increase in the area median income or the consumer price index, whichever is higher.

Havens said it seems like a reasonable attempt to keep the houses affordable, while allowing the owners to gain some equity. For him and others, like Newkirk, the initiative has been a great opportunity to own a home on the peninsula.

"I wouldn't have been able to get a house downtown without that program," said Newkirk, who is executive director of PASTORS, a non-profit group that develops housing for the city's initiative.

Johnson said three previous attempts to sell the same house on Lee Street purchased by Havens had fallen through.

In 2006, a 23-year-old school teacher planned to buy the house but then learned she was going to be laid off. In 2007, a social worker was approved to buy the house but got married before the sale was completed, which raised her family income beyond the city's limits for the program. Also in 2007, a law student was going to buy the house but backed out after learning that owning a home would make it harder to get student loans.

"The sale of this home has been a top priority for the city and we have worked with a number of buyers to make that a reality," Johnson said.

While some houses in the initiative took years to sell, the city now has only three left, on Peecksen's Court and on America Street.

There are 46 more properties under development for the initiative, including vacant lots and houses in poor repair that were acquired at tax sales. The city's net cost for each home has ranged from as little as $10,000 to more than $100,000.

"People think that, with what's happening in the (real estate) market, that the need for affordable housing has diminished, but that's not the case," Johnson said.