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Editorial: Affordable housing is a long game; our region still needs more players

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James Lewis apts 1.jpg (copy)

Grace Homes, a new affordable housing apartment complex on Meeting Street in Charleston, between Cooper and Lee streets, is pictured in February 2021. Both vacant city blocks east of Grace Homes (foreground) will become home to additional affordable rental housing. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It’s certainly positive news to see more than 400 units of affordable housing either opened or taking shape near the old Cooper River bridges on Charleston’s peninsula. But it’s crucial to realize this success has been decades in the making, and our local leaders should feel a greater sense of urgency to ensure we have similar housing successes in the future.

As David Slade reported Sunday, Charleston is beginning to see several major affordable housing projects in and around the void left downtown after the Arthur Ravenel Bridge opened and the old bridges were torn down. They promise to help reknit a neighborhood split in two by the 20th century’s demands for a road network.

While these six major projects will help address the Charleston region’s affordable housing problem, they won’t come close to solving it. And given the great deal of time involved in creating more affordable housing — from finding suitable sites to assembling the often-complex financing to permitting and construction — more needs to be done. Soon.

Tracy Doran, executive director of the Humanities Foundation, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit that develops affordable housing in South Carolina and beyond, told Mr. Slade she believes Charleston has done more work on creating affordable housing than any other city in South Carolina, adding, “It’s been a priority for them, and that shows.” The city is the only local government in the Charleston region to issue two multimillion-dollar bonds to create more financing for affordable housing construction.

It’s natural that Charleston would lead on this as the most urban part of our region. There is a reason the vast majority of federal public housing was built on the Charleston peninsula: Land there is close to many jobs, public transportation, stores and services. The footprint of the old Cooper River bridges also is a great site for more affordable housing, partly because the city’s East Side residents have supported new, relatively dense development for years.

But land on Charleston’s peninsula is getting increasingly pricey and scarce, and the development of the 21.5-mile-long Lowcountry Rapid Transit bus line greatly increases the livability along its route for those who don’t own a car. All that means it’s more important than ever for more local governments, particularly North Charleston and Charleston County, to make it a priority for them, too.

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County Council in particular needs to follow up on establishing a new, dedicated stream of money for more such housing. And that means creating a new, specific county housing program that voters can understand. The lack of such a detailed program played a large role in voters’ narrow rejection in the fall of a property tax increase to support affordable housing.

Fortunately, the planning for the Lowcountry Rapid Transit line includes a study of how land use could evolve, particularly around the stops along its route. It will be up to North Charleston to ensure that zoning and other city support — which could include financing not unlike what Charleston is doing — evolves to support these exciting new opportunities.

Creating affordable housing is the ultimate long game. Even though the Cooper River bridges were torn down more than a decade ago, it’s taken many years to get this far, which isn’t very far at all by some standards.

Five of the six apartment complexes featured in Mr. Slade’s recent report still haven’t been built.

So while we all need patience, our leaders also need to move with a sense of urgency to keep the momentum going.

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