Tile, copper gutters and public housing

Charleston spent $620,000 in stimulus money on clay roof tiles and new copper gutters (top) to replace the old gutters (above) at the Robert Mills Manor public housing project.

While some 1,000 families sit on Charleston's public housing waiting list, why would the city dole out $620,000 in federal stimulus money to put pricey new copper gutters and clay roof tile on the Robert Mills Manor public housing project in the downtown historic district?

That's what an alert reader wanted The Post and Courier's Watchdog to find out.

Don Cameron, head of the city housing authority, told Watchdog it's all about preserving the historic integrity of the 220-apartment, campus-style project built in the late 1930s along the intersection of Logan and Queen streets. And, he said, it's also about protecting the integrity of the historic neighborhood surrounding the apartments, where many homeowners can't make many repairs or additions unless they conform to strict historic preservation rules.

Catherine Shroka, 82, lives in a retirement apartment at Canterberry House just a block from the housing project. She strolled along Logan Street on Wednesday next to where workers busily replaced copper gutters and broken tile on one of the Robert Mills Manor buildings. Asked what she thought about the new historically correct copper guttering on the public housing, she glanced at the building from under the brim of her sun hat, smiled and observed: "I love Charleston, but sometimes the hysterical society gets to me."

Quincy Taylor, 24, of Cainhoy was visiting his sister who lives in the manor and said he could see both sides of the issue. The copper gutters and clay tile are "strong and should last longer." But, he said, the money might have been put to better use by placing more needy people in public housing.

Cameron said the money can't be used for anything but maintenance and repair; it came to the city as part of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department stimulus grant to "preserve and extend the useful life of public housing."

He says the housing authority might have been able to get a variance from the city to use cheaper material, such as aluminum gutters, which cost about one-tenth as much as copper. But, he said, the authority did not even consider that option because "we have an obligation as part of stewardship" to maintain the historic character of the neighborhood and the manor, which was one of the first federally financed public housing projects during the Great Depression.

Pat Mellen, who helped guide restoration of historic buildings in downtown Charleston after Hurricane Hugo roared through, said he totally supports the restoration efforts of the city housing authority. He lives at 2 Pitt St. directly across Beaufain Street from the housing project.

He said the only significant work that ever had to be done on the gutters or tile roofing at Robert Mills Manor came as a result of Hugo, and at that point, the manor was already nearly 50 years old. Replacing worn-out copper gutters with new copper and broken clay tile with new clay tile is not only in keeping with the historic character, it's cost effective, he said. "It'll last for years."

But not all of the old copper will be replaced. Copper downspouts, a favorite target of thieves throughout the historic district, will be made of plastic that appears to be copper.