While downtown Charleston has fewer dilapidated old buildings than any time in recent generations, those that still exist stand out more than ever.
So it's probably not surprising that several Charleston City Council members seem to have an appetite to do something about them.
It’s going to be the hot topic at council’s next Community Development Committee meeting. The solutions up for debate include rewriting the Board of Architectural Review’s authority and reviving a city board that can work with owners of the most blighted homes.
City Councilman Jason Sakran raised the issue Tuesday, and there’s little wonder as to why. In 2020, he sold his Maple Street home, which was next door to a fire-damaged home that stood unrepaired for many years.
Sakran thanked the mayor, previous councils and the city’s livability officers for their work on the issue, and he noted the number of dilapidated buildings in the city has dwindled from about 500 several years ago to only about 200 today. But tackling some of those final 200 can be frustrating, he noted: “It seems like things just get nowhere.”
His colleague, Councilman Robert Mitchell, pointed the finger at the city’s Board of Architectural Review, which allows only historically appropriate repair work on properties in certain parts of the city.
“A lot of these other properties are owned by private individuals, and they can’t afford to fix them,” he noted. “I don’t know what’s going to be the remedy to it.”
Others are less sure the BAR is most at fault here. One persistent problem is homes owned by multiple heirs. Without a clear title, it’s difficult for any particular heir to fix one up or sell it.
That was the problem with the single house at 29 Henrietta St. that recently was torn down after sitting vacant for years.
Councilman Ross Appel thanked Sakran for raising the issue. “Every time I see one of these structures, I think of affordable housing that doesn’t exist where these structures are. I think of generational wealth that’s locked out from being realized by heirs property folks who own that structure and are unable to develop it due to these regulations,” he said. “It’s a major, major city problem we’ve got to address.”
Mayor John Tecklenburg said the best solution might be to revive a group of city employees who can work with such owners, even before they are called to appear in court for a blighted property, to make sure they’re aware of the help available.
He noted the city can require repairs for public safety or if the house is at structural risk — and if the owner is unresponsive, the city can make those repairs and recoup its cost by placing a lien on the property. “You can’t force somebody to make a place completely habitable,” he said.
Engaging property owners in a better way would be a more promising solution than trying to water down BAR rules. Lowering standards for fixing up historic homes to solve the problem of a few blighted properties seems similar to buying bigger pants to solve the problem of overeating.
But minor changes shouldn't necessarily be off the table. Most people don't appreciate it, but the BAR already has differing levels of review in four different sections on the peninsula (from the strictest in the Old and Historic District on the southern end to the less strict Historic Materials Demolition Purview to the north). These rules have changed often, and often subtly, so it shouldn't be out of the question to change them subtly yet again.
“These are all things that should be periodically evaluated and assessed, and if we as a council think the BAR has too much authority, we can roll it back," Appeal said. "That’s our job."
But it's also City Council's job to appreciate how this 91-year-old board has contributed to the city's vitality — and not solve one problem by creating another.