Land is expensive on the Charleston peninsula. That’s not exactly news.
But expensive land generally translates into expensive housing. And expensive housing means lots of workers can’t afford to live near their jobs. And workers living far from work means traffic and parking problems.
And so on.
As far as we know, there is no straightforward solution to Charleston’s housing affordability crisis. But if the price of land is part of the problem in building reasonably priced homes, then it makes sense to try to cut that cost.
Enter the Palmetto Community Land Trust. The nonprofit organization launched in January uses public-private partnerships to acquire land, develop housing and sell or rent those homes at an affordable rate in perpetuity.
“It’s a new idea for Charleston and a newish idea for South Carolina, but it’s a tool that has been used in other places since the 1980s,” said Winslow Hastie, director of the Historic Charleston Foundation, which partnered with city officials and the Charleston Housing Authority to launch the land trust and its parent nonprofit, the Charleston Redevelopment Corp. (CRC).
The land trust is targeting people earning anything from minimum wage to roughly the area median salary. The properties it oversees won’t be public housing, in other words, but are designed to provide an option for working people who would otherwise be priced off the peninsula.
Charleston also has a Homeownership Initiative program that works sort of like a land trust. It connects people with affordable properties and allows them to be resold down the road at a fair return that still keeps the price at a reasonable level.
The main difference is who owns the land.
“The goal is to acquire property,” said Melissa Maddox-Evans, president of the CRC and general counsel for the Charleston Housing Authority. “It could be an individual lot or a section of a community — as large or as small as we are able to acquire.”
The first properties in the land trust’s portfolio will be six units in a larger Charleston Housing Authority development on Nassau Street that broke ground on Thursday. The Grace Homes project also will offer 56 apartments for low-income and workforce residents.
It’s part of a longstanding effort to redevelop neglected neighborhoods where the old Cooper River bridges once touched down on the peninsula.
The land trust also is helping city officials decide how best to handle a possible redevelopment of the old Archer School in the East Side neighborhood. The abandoned but historic building needs substantial and costly repairs to make it livable, which could complicate plans to turn it into affordable housing.
But tax breaks available to private developers could help bring down the cost of redevelopment if the city were to partner with other organizations, according to Kevin Drexel, executive director of the CRC.
Charleston also has $20 million that voters approved in 2016 to help provide affordable housing. City officials should start putting that money to good use sooner rather than later.
And the state Legislature could help spur affordable development by undoing a ban on so-called inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to set aside a certain number of below-market rate units or pay into a community housing fund.
Charleston already has what effectively amounts to inclusionary zoning, but it’s not mandatory. Developers can opt in and get more density on certain downtown properties.
In the meantime, the Palmetto Community Land Trust is a welcome new tool in the toolkit for keeping Charleston a living, working city — one that’s affordable for the people who help make it such a prosperous city.