Charleston’s public housing is on the verge of a historic transformation.
Properties that have been federally owned will soon be run locally, and they will operate more like traditional apartment complexes than anything else. Residents will pay rent with vouchers, and could one day live next door to people paying market rates.
The federal government built some of its first rental properties in Charleston at the height of the Great Depression to help put people back on their feet by first giving them a safe place to live.
Today, amid a growing affordable housing shortage across the country and in the Charleston region, the federal government wants to withdraw from the public housing program it created and transfer its properties to local authorities.
That's partly because the backlog of repairs needed across 1.1 million public housing units now stands at an estimated $49 billion. To fund that, Congress would need to vastly increase the annual budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but the opposite is happening.
The decades-old public housing properties are getting older, and the pool of money to update them keeps getting smaller. After years of budget cuts, President Donald Trump has proposed slashing public housing funds by another 44 percent.
The outlook is especially grim for a coastal community like Charleston, where sea-level rise is a growing threat. On Drake Street, tenants already wade through water whenever a heavy rain falls at high tide.
Elevating the 128-unit complex would be an enormous expense, and would probably not be possible given more pressing needs at other properties.
Melissa Maddox-Evans, attorney for the Charleston Housing Authority, explained why that's so challenging at a recent meeting with tenants.
"Let’s say if we needed all the pipes replaced, or all the roofs replaced. We have to literally decide what we’re going to fix because we can’t fix everything," she said.
The one housing program that seems to be growing in the Trump era is something called Rental Assistance Demonstration, mostly referred to as RAD, created in 2012.
It gives local housing authorities the option to take over all the federally owned properties in their communities and pursue their own renovation plans using whatever funding sources they can find. In the process, they convert all HUD funding to Section 8 vouchers that are then tied to the units.
Housing authorities in Greenville and North Charleston were early adopters, and its leaders say the conversions were overwhelmingly successful. The Columbia Housing Authority, the largest in the state, looked into it for one property but said it couldn't make the numbers work.
In Charleston, housing authority leaders have decided, after years of weighing the pros and cons, to transition its 1,407 public housing to the RAD model. But it's not much of a choice at this point, said Executive Director Don Cameron.
"If you want to provide good, decent housing and not be, in essence, maintaining declining buildings, this is where you’re going to have to go," he said. "If the future was bright rather than gloomy, we probably wouldn’t be pursuing this."
'Where would we go?'
The mechanics of the change won't be easy in Charleston, financially or otherwise.
The transition will take about two years. Here's how it will work:
Once the authority informs all of its residents of the change, it will send an application to HUD. If it's approved, the authority then becomes the owner of all the properties, and the only funding it will get from HUD will come in the form of Section 8 vouchers.
That's as far as the North Charleston Housing Authority went with its conversion, because most of its public housing properties are only about a decade old, so redevelopments aren't necessary yet, said Executive Director Gary Scott.
Only a few in Charleston will be redeveloped in the near future, Cameron said.
In those cases, the authority will continue to own the land but likely will partner with private or nonprofit developers to reshape the communities to accommodate a mix of home ownership opportunities, subsidized units, reduced-rent units and market-rate units.
The authority hasn't begun the required studies to figure out which ones will be prioritized for redevelopment or how much they might cost. It's also unclear whether the authority will manage the units, or if that responsibility will be turned over to a nonprofit or for profit company.
Tenants of those communities will have to be relocated temporarily, and that's one of the biggest challenges of the RAD program.
HUD gives each tenant a Section 8 voucher to pay for housing elsewhere in the meantime, and local authorities are required to facilitate the relocation. All the tenants will have the right to return to their properties after the project is completed.
The problem is, the vast majority of Charleston's public housing is on the peninsula, and many of its tenants have lived downtown all their lives. But rent prices are so high downtown that many residents won't be able to afford them even if they find a landlord who will accept a Section 8 voucher.
The maximum subsidy for most families will be about $775, a price point that's difficult to find anywhere in Charleston, Cameron said.
Barbara Heyward lives in Wraggborough Homes on Drake Street, one of the properties the authority is likely to redevelop first.
The 69-year-old has lived downtown since she moved here in 1959, and she moved to Wraggborough in 2002 after she became disabled. She relies on public transportation to get to her doctors' appointments on the other side of the peninsula.
If she's relocated to North Charleston or West Ashley, not only would it be disorienting, but she's also afraid she wouldn't be close enough to a bus stop.
"I've only ever been familiar with downtown," she said. "Where would we go if they do this transition? Where would they put the elderly people and the younger mothers with children that have to go to school?"
Tenants are also worried that the change will mean privatizing public housing and pricing out people who rely on subsidies.
Anastasia Kesha, a single mother earning less than $30,000 a year, went to a recent meeting to learn about the housing authority's plans.
"My concern is that this is another way ... for gentrification," she told Maddox-Evans. "I’m afraid that not enough affordable housing is going to be maintained."
The authority is promising that won't happen.
In an August memo to authority staff, Cameron outlined several key points that its leaders, Mayor John Tecklenburg and City Council's Community Development Committee, agreed on. They included:
- The authority can't lose a single subsidized unit in the conversion process, and none can be lost from the peninsula.
- The conversion cannot contribute to the gentrification of the city.
- A property's age does not directly influence whether it should be redeveloped, because many have been maintained well and don't have existing issues.
Cameron said the authority is also committed to making sure that if properties are redeveloped, the same number of units and bedroom counts are rebuilt to accommodate the same families.
"We cannot have less, because that would be a disservice to the people who need it today, tomorrow and in the future," he said.
But those goals will be pretty difficult to achieve on large properties because the very low rents won't be enough to cover the redevelopment and future operation costs. Without HUD subsidies, each property will have to include units with higher rents.
The big financial questions are: How many of those market-rate units will it take to keep the lights on, and will the land be large enough to support them in addition to all the low-rent units that were there before? How tall will the authority seek to build and how will neighbors react?
The Greenville Housing Authority was able to achieve all of its conversion projects without losing low-income units. Not all public housing units went back into the exact same properties, but they were added into mixed-income developments elsewhere.
"Financially, it was the only way it would work for us," said executive director Ivory Mathews, adding that it's actually been a positive change for the properties and the tenants. "We wanted to make mixed-income communities and not just recreate public housing."
But earning tenants' trust before the conversions was an uphill battle, she said.
"That’s the real work," she said. "There was a lot of fear."
Tenants are right to be concerned, said Jessica Cassella, an attorney for the National Housing Law Project.
The nonprofit helped establish what the tenants' rights should be under RAD, which are stronger than in many other federal housing programs, she said. But HUD hasn't been closely monitoring how it's being implemented in many communities, according to a Government Accountability Office audit published in February.
"We are very concerned about HUD’s lack of resources to adequately enforce tenants’ rights in the RAD program," Cassella said.
Without proper oversight from HUD, Cassella said one of the strongest safeguards is for tenants to attend all the authority's meetings and stay informed throughout the process. They can also form Resident Advisory Boards to help hold authority members accountable.