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Editorial: North Charleston needs affordable housing -- and smarter zoning

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Russelldale.jpg (copy)

North Charleston's Planning Commission recommended denial in a request to rezone this Russelldale site that would pave the way for affordable housing units. The Planning Commission applauded the project, but said it only examines the zoning of properties. Rickey Dennis/Staff

Of all the municipalities in the Charleston region, North Charleston is the least affected by a regional housing affordability crisis. That’s not much of an accomplishment. The city housing authority still has a list of hundreds of people struggling to find a place to live.

So North Charleston shouldn’t turn down an opportunity for new housing for low- and middle-income residents.

But that’s what effectively happened at a city Planning Commission meeting earlier this month when commissioners unanimously rejected a proposal to rezone a residential property for commercial zoning that would allow a higher density of housing units, which the developer promised would be priced below market rate.

The reasoning was logical, but misguided. Commissioners worried that commercial zoning would allow other enterprises in the Russelldale neighborhood if the development fell through.

In many cases that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Low-impact commercial uses — a corner store, a barber shop, an art gallery, a gift store, a small café, etc. — could benefit a residential neighborhood rather than being a nuisance.

But it’s fair to worry that something like, say, a liquor store or hotel might not be an ideal next-door neighbor.

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There’s an easy solution, however. North Charleston could simply put extra restrictions on certain commercial uses in or near residential areas. The city already does that in some cases, like for adult-oriented businesses.

Or city officials could tweak existing zoning options like limited business to allow a larger housing component.

Or they could follow Charleston’s lead and allow bonus residential density in exchange for an agreement that developers provide a certain percentage of affordable units as part of new mixed-use buildings in certain parts of the city.

The North Charleston Planning Commission rightly explained that it’s not their job to make the rules. But City Council ought to take a look at them, since similar requests are likely to pop up around North Charleston in the future as the larger region continues to grow.

Affordable housing is almost always welcome in the Charleston area. And a healthier mix of uses could reduce car dependency, improve health, provide local jobs, boost the local economy and lift quality of life.

Perhaps this particular housing development isn’t the right fit for its neighborhood. But it raises some important questions about how North Charleston will grow and how the city can meet changing needs and preferences.

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