It’s unclear how making housing less affordable by increasing property taxes will somehow solve Charleston’s housing affordability crisis, but that’s what a Charleston County task force recommended doing last week.
Granted, the proposed property tax increases were relatively small. Then again, so was the amount of revenue that would be brought in to build affordable units.
And in any case taxing Charleston residents to fund construction of affordable housing is easily the most complex, costly way to address a shortage of reasonably priced homes and apartments in the area. It ought to be a last resort, not a first one.
First of all, we need to better define the housing crisis. A quick real estate search can turn up dozens of homes in the tri-county area with listing prices under $150,000. There are several under $100,000. That’s pretty affordable, even for people earning well below the area median salary.
They’re not in great neighborhoods. Some of them need work. But they’re affordable.
There are also a good number of relatively inexpensive new homes being built on the fringes of the metro area. That’s not ideal for a number of reasons, but transportation is more of a challenge for people on the edges of the region than affordability.
So affordable homes exist, but maybe not in all of the ways we’d like them to. And it’s probably accurate to suggest that demand outweighs supply.
Rising rents and home prices have dramatically outpaced growth in the Charleston area’s average salaries for several years. In some parts of the region, buying a home would be impossible even for someone earning double or triple the median wage.
That puts pressure on people who spend increasingly large portions of their earnings on housing, which drags down the rest of the economy by eating up otherwise disposable income.
Yet no American city facing a housing crisis — and there are many — has so far been able to fully bridge the divide between average residents’ incomes and the average price of homes.
Part of the problem is that a housing affordability crisis for would-be homeowners is mostly a great thing for people who already own houses. It’s difficult to make housing both inexpensive and a great investment.
But there are a few things that local governments could do, several of which would come at little or no cost to the public, that would at least give the private sector — including individual homeowners — more flexibility to meet our broader housing needs.
Build accessory dwelling units
This is a faddish suggestion, but that’s mostly because it has the potential to make a real difference. Charleston even has a historic and charming precedent in carriage houses.
Only a handful of Charleston-area neighborhoods allow ADUs, and even then they often require some sort of special zoning approval. Loosening restrictions on them would help grow the housing supply in already-successful neighborhoods while generating new revenue for homeowners — all without exacerbating sprawl.
Loosen residential zoning
Going a step further, cities could rethink zoning rules like parking minimums, setbacks, buffers and other technicalities that tend to make housing less affordable. Some cities like Minneapolis have gone so far as to eliminate single-family residential zoning.
That’s probably a step too far in Charleston, but our suburban residential zoning codes aren’t well suited to affordability. In fact, overly strict rules simultaneously drive up housing costs by limiting supply and artificially cap the value of land by dictating what can be built there.
Tackle short-term rentals
Charleston city officials are leading the way on this front. The city has a near-total ban on whole-home rentals, which remove entire units from the housing market. Other local governments ought to consider similar rules. And any regulations are only as good as their enforcement.
Focus on transit
Everyone can’t or won’t live and work on the Charleston peninsula or in the region’s denser neighborhoods. Access to affordable transit and a functional, sustainable transportation system allows people — particularly lower-income earners — to live more comfortably farther away from the region’s urban core without struggling with traffic congestion and the high costs of car ownership.
Better transit, along with safer, more convenient bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, would benefit almost everyone in the Charleston area — homeowner, car owner, or not.
None of these fixes would completely erase the mismatch between Charleston incomes and housing costs, but taken together they’re likely to at least push things in that direction. Then maybe we can talk about a tax hike.
Ed Buckley is a columnist with The Post and Courier.