Rosalee Bennekin voices frustration as she reflects on the decline of her southern North Charleston neighborhood.

Union Heights once bustled with grocery shops, shoe stores, fish markets and a movie theater within walking distance. But those days are long gone. The community today is populated with vacant lots and boarded-up homes. There's no grocery store anywhere nearby.

“We don’t have anything," said Bennekin, 93.

But the formation of a community land trust could help charter a bright path forward for the neighborhood where residents have felt left out of the region's revitalization efforts.

Community leaders have targeted several properties in Union Heights and surrounding communities to establish affordable housing units in what has become a hot retail market with hopes to improve the quality of life for the mostly black, low-income community.

'Not against diversity'

Business was booming in Union Heights in the 1950s and '60s, and nearly all of the residents owned their homes, said Skip Mikell, whose family started a funeral home in the neighborhood in 1954.

But over time, the business owners died, younger residents went off to college and never returned to their former neighborhood, located on the southern tip of North Charleston between Spruill Avenue and Meeting Street.

The 1996 closure of the Charleston Naval Base accelerated the downward spiral of the community and today, the neighborhood consists of about 1,500, mostly elderly residents who pay rent, said Mikell, who also serves as president of the neighborhood association. 

Though the demographics are still the same and rent prices haven't skyrocketed in Union Heights as they have on Charleston's peninsula, residents still fear that gentrification could happen here.

Some homeowners get offers in the mail several times a month asking to buy their houses, similar to residents in surrounding communities in the Neck Area. Bertha's Kitchen on Meeting Street Road received national recognition last year when the soul food restaurant was named an America’s Classic by the James Beard Foundation.

While several white residents already have moved into the mostly low-income community and redeveloped a few houses, Mikell said, diversity isn't the issue. The problem arises when people begin buying, remodeling and flipping houses that, in turn, could drive up the rents for surrounding residents.

“We’re not against diversity," he said. "We are against planned displacement. There is nowhere else for these residents, especially senior residents, to go."

In addition, a developer purchased several neighborhood lots years ago with plans to establish two-bedroom cottages running $150,000 to $200,000.

Meanwhile, residents feel left out of the city's success.

Months after the city of North Charleston helped fund a revitalization study around a blighted corridor just north of Union Heights, residents questioned what was being done to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood.

The city owns several properties in Union Heights that residents said could be used to develop houses sold at reasonable prices.

Councilman Michael Brown, whose District 10 includes the neighborhood, said while the city doesn't have any plans for its parcels, there are plans to obtain property owned by the State Department of Transportation near exit 218 near Interstate 26 to establish affordable housing.

He expressed sympathy for seniors who are either priced out of their homes or cash-in because they can't afford to maintain the structures, and added the city should look at establishing residences for the elderly.

Hopeful future

The Community First Land Trust was recently formed to establish and maintain affordable housing in the neighborhood.

More than 200 land trusts exist nationwide, and they are designed to help low-income homeowners build equity.

Under the land trust plan, the trust purchases and owns the land and leases it to people to build houses that are sold at affordable prices. People buy the homes, but the trust keeps the land so that residents are not displaced due to gentrification.

The Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities purchased more than 30 properties in area communities for about $800,000. The alliance had received about $4 million in mitigation funds received from the State Ports Authority for the impacts of the new Hugh Leatherman shipping terminal set to open in 2021.

All of the alliance's properties eventually will be handed over to the land trust to establish affordable housing. So far, the trust has selected three Union Heights parcels where it hopes to break ground on new homes early next year, said Henrietta Woodward, chair of the board that oversees the trust.

The trust also expects to receive $70,000 in federal housing funds from the city of North Charleston and $90,000 more from Charleston County. 

The trust plans to raise more money to subsidize costs of purchasing existing homes as well. That way, a family that cannot purchase a home at $130,000 could buy it for $100,000 with land trust making up the $30,000 difference.

"The goal of the land trust is not only provide affordable housing, but also to provide subsidies," she said.

Nonetheless, for improvement to take shape, the neighborhood can't stay the same, Brown said.

“It's a new stock of people coming," he said. "At one time, it probably wasn’t the most attractive place to be. Now, it's becoming that.”

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