Virtually all the 20-something Democrats competing to take on Donald Trump went to Jim Clyburn’s ‘’world famous’’ fish in Columbia last month. Not a single one of them is ever likely to set foot in The Hub.
This is not surprising in the least because the improbably named Hub is invisible in plain sight as are the poor who live in these cinder block shanties in North Charleston. We talk all the time about the need for affordable housing, but to see what actually passes for affordable housing in this country — in our backyard — is a scandal. Living in it is much, much worse.
The Hub is a relic of the '50s, built by legendary Charleston developer J.C. Long back in the day when his Beach Co. was known for affordable housing rather than trophy properties like Kiawah, the Jasper and on and on from Charleston to Nashville. In the post-war boom, Long built scores of these little cement duplexes on Azalea Drive as short-stay housing for sailors and their families.
Sixty years later and long after Beach sold it off, The Hub is still standing, nothing short of a three-acre, low-rise slum. At the strip mall down the street, the lone store sells beer, lottery tickets and cigarettes. Even the liquor store is out of business. The rehab center is a busy place.
The denizens of The Hub, almost all of them black, aren’t clamoring to tell their stories. Just the opposite, in fact. I spent days knocking on doors before anyone let me in. The places are decrepit, but they beat the alternative. Complain, residents told me, and you risk ending up on the street, the next long step down from The Hub.
“If you use the microwave and the AC is on, the lights go out,” says 28-year-old Lakresha Cochrane, who lives here with her parents and her five children.
There are eight, and sometimes nine, people crowded into this tiny, dark two-bedroom house. There’s mold on the bathroom ceiling and the bedroom floor. The makeshift tiles are falling off the bathtub. When the washing machine is running, the bathroom sink fills with water. There’s a hole in the wall outside, rot everywhere. Deep potholes in front of the house fill with water when it rains. At the moment two small kids are making a game of rolling around in the remains of a broken plastic wading pool.
This is not Appalachia 1932 but North Charleston 2019. We’re only a few miles from North Charleston’s City Hall in one direction and America’s favorite tourism destination, Charleston, in the other. But the divide between the worlds might as well be an ocean.
The people who live here aren’t welfare queens: Cochrane, a school custodian, and her parents all have full-time jobs, and pay $600 a month in rent — about half the going rate for a two-bedroom apartment in North Charleston.
This is, in fact, the case of most of his tenants, says Tom Taylor, who along with partner Joe Walters, owns about 55 properties in The Hub. Most of his tenants are the working poor, he says, and he has people standing in line for the 160 or so apartments they own in some of North Charleston’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods.
There are absentee slumlords, Taylor says, but he’s not one of them. If something is broken, he fixes it, he says. What he’s offering is below-market housing, and the only requirements are you haven’t been arrested for a felony in five years, been evicted in three years and can come up with a month’s rent.
He is, indeed, accessible to anyone who walks into his beaten up office on drug-infested Apache Street. Sitting behind the counter with a baseball cap on his head and a .38-caliber pistol on his hip, Taylor, 58, fields a stream of calls from people looking for housing. Call tomorrow, he says, but call earlier in the day.
There’s no news here. What’s happening in North Charleston is happening all over America. The federal government got out of the business of building public housing two decades ago, turning the job over to the private sector and a patchwork of local governments and nonprofits. It’s not working: There is a building boom for the haves, thoughts and prayers for the have-nots.
Think it’s bad now? “It is getting way worse,” Taylor says. “The prices are going up, and the units are going away.”
The Hub will go away, too, when “Tom and Joe,” as everyone calls them, get the right offer. The invisible people of The Hub? They’re not going away.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.