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Editorial: Charleston County must learn from voters on affordable housing

courtyard williams terrace.jpg (copy) (copy)

The courtyard at Williams Terrace, an affordable housing complex next to Gadsdenboro Park between Washington and Concord streets. Tuesday, September 19, 2017. Wade Spees/Staff

Charleston County Council didn’t wait until its two new members are sworn in next year to begin discussing its path forward on affordable housing after the narrow defeat of two referendum questions that would have raised property taxes to build more of it.

Despite the clear need for such housing, some voters understandably were leery of a tax increase amid the pandemic-damaged economy. Others were hesitant for the same reason that gave us pause in our split endorsement on the questions: the troubling lack of details about how the millions of dollars raised by the tax would be spent.

When County Council members met Thursday to talk about their next steps, a few acknowledged as much. “In talking with some people, they were wondering what were our plans, what kind of housing we had planned to concentrate on building,” Councilwoman Anna Johnson said. “What is affordable housing? Give us the definition.”

Councilman Vic Rawl said the county’s hands were tied somewhat because it wanted to avoid any appearance that public money was being used to campaign for a “yes” vote; such campaigning is illegal under state law.

The good news is that the work the county would have done if voters had approved the proposals largely still can take place. County Council set that in motion by voting last week to ask its Affordable Housing Task Force to bring back a more detailed proposal, including a draft ordinance, with regard to workforce housing.

It was a wise and necessary next step.

That proposal — and council’s response early next year — should do the following to keep the momentum going:

  • Identify a partner that would manage the county’s program. The S.C. Community Loan Fund has been mentioned and would be a logical choice, but council members should make their decision after a public solicitation and objective analysis.
  • Flesh out guidelines or parameters council would give to its partner as a roadmap for spending the county’s money. That blueprint should clarify how much investment would be geared toward adding more affordable rental units, how much on helping residents own their first home, and how much on repairing existing housing stock.
  • Highlight other steps the county should take alongside providing financial help. These could include zoning changes, such as increasing densities, decreasing parking requirements or allowing more leeway for new townhomes and accessory dwelling units.
  • Add more clarity on what the different areas of the county could expect. Charleston County varies widely, with higher land costs closer to its coast and with most jobs, commercial and services near its interstates. Josh Dix, government affairs director for the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, noted the referendum questions fared better in Charleston and North Charleston than in Mount Pleasant or in beach communities. It’s clear some parts of the county are more suitable for more affordable housing than others, especially as the Lowcountry Rapid Transit system takes shape between Ladson and downtown Charleston.

The more residents know about the above details, the more comfortable they would be not only with a new property tax to create a county affordable housing fund but also with plans to issue bonds backed by that tax money and spend much of the funds sooner rather than later.

“The predominant question that came out was not the ... (tax) increase but about the bonding issue,” Mr. Dix told council members. “The lack of specificity and clarity with how the money would be allocated was the real question we didn’t have a great answer for, and at the end of the day, it caused too much confusion with the voters to have them confident to vote ‘yes’ to either issue.”

It took a few tries for Charleston County to win support for its last big initiative — a new sales tax for transportation and land conservation — and the outcome of the recent housing referendum is no reason to give up.

Council members should heed the concerns of voters and provide these necessary details.

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