East Central Lofts sells for $12.4 million (copy) (copy)

The East Central Lofts on Huger Street was among the first apartment developments in Charleston to opt into the city's workforce housing zoning incentive, which gave developers more density in exchange for offering a portion of units at below-market rates. Staff/file

Housing that people can afford goes by many names and means many different things, but discussions about "affordable housing" in greater Charleston are increasingly focused on middle-class, full-time workers.

In Mount Pleasant, for example, a nonprofit group that emerged from the work of a town housing task force, called Housing For All Mount Pleasant, lays out a goal of creating "attainable housing." The organization defines that as housing people earning up to 120 percent of the area's median income can afford.

That would be a single person earning up to $62,640, or a family of four with income as high as $89,400, which is more than most families earn.

The city of Charleston favors the term "workforce housing" but uses the same income standard for the city's home ownership initiative. People earning between 80 and 120 percent of the area's median income literally have incomes in the middle.

Area median income is the point where half an area's residents earn more, and half earn less. The AMI for the tri-county Charleston Metro Area is $52,200 for a single person, and rises with family size. 

The terms "workforce housing" and "attainable housing" emphasize the idea that it's not low-income housing, but rather housing for working people with moderate incomes. The S.C. State Housing Finance and Development Authority has offered a homebuyer program called Palmetto Heroes specifically for law enforcement and correctional officers, teachers, nurses, paramedics and certain other professions.

In some of the area's most expensive places — the Charleston peninsula, Mount Pleasant and Daniel Island — there are "workforce housing" units in otherwise expensive apartment complexes. That's because regulations (later eliminated in Mount Pleasant) encouraged them, allowing larger apartment buildings if some units were rented below market rates.

Examples include The Boulevard apartments on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant and Elan Midtown on Meeting Street in Charleston. The limited number of workforce apartments are for people earning up to 80 percent of AMI, and the rent rates press right to the edge of what's considered affordable, consuming 30 percent of the renters' income.

"Affordable housing" has become a catch-all term. Literally, housing is considered affordable if the people who own or rent it don't spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Even the definition of "low income" would surprise many people. At up to 80% of AMI — the federal definition of "low income" for the Charleston Metro Area — a single person could make up to $41,750, which is more than many college-educated full-time workers earn.

There's also "very low income," defined by the federal government as no more than half the area median income, and "extremely low income" beyond that. At those income levels, what housing exists is often provided by area housing authorities directly or though housing vouchers, which have waiting lists.

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com