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Editorial: Vote yes, then no, in Charleston County's affordable housing referendum

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Union Heights homes 3.jpg (copy) (copy)

New homes rise Thursday, June 11, 2020, in the Union Heights neighborhood that will be sold as affordable housing in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A lack of affordable housing is one of the greatest challenges affecting the Charleston region. It impacts everything from household budgets and traffic congestion to air quality and our ability to attract talent and grow.

So it's understandable that Charleston County Council wants to raise a significant amount of public money to help develop and build new housing that the private sector is simply unable to provide, given current land prices and construction costs.

Unfortunately, County Council decided to proceed with a referendum before its members held much public discussion about how the money would be spent. That concerns us, especially given the council's act of bad faith when it indicated that it would not use money from its most recent half-cent sales tax referendum on the controversial Mark Clark extension, only to pivot and later pledge hundreds of millions toward finishing it. That's a textbook example of how not to earn voters' trust.

This is complicated because council members are saying little about the two referendum questions, partly out of fear of the perception that county government is lobbying for its passage, which, if true, would violate state law. Instead, the campaign is backed by a diverse range of interests, including the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, underscoring the broad impact the lack of affordable housing has on our area.

A vote against the first question — “Shall Charleston County Council levy a two mill tax in Charleston County to fund a Local Housing Trust Fund to finance affordable housing initiatives operated by Charleston County or jointly operated by the County and other private or governmental entities?" — would deal too severe a blow to housing advocates' hopes and our region's needs. Besides, the council doesn't need the public's approval to do that.

So we urge you to vote "yes" on the first question, which would cost the owner of a $300,000 home about $24 more a year and the owner of a $300,000 commercial property about $36. That would bring in $8 million a year and allow the county to proceed with finding a partner to administer this new fund — and begin to identify specific projects.

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The second question would let County Council borrow against this new property tax income stream and raise about $130 million right off the bat. That could be a smart move eventually, but it's premature. We would urge voters to reject this and insist that County Council first decide how the program would work. The county also could provide more details about specific projects — or at least guidelines about how projects will be vetted — before bringing a bonding question back to voters in 2022.

Affordable housing is challenging for reasons beyond the high cost of land, material and labor; it's challenging because many residents are wary of projects that they fear (often without justification) could drag down their property values. A building spree fueled by $130 million in suddenly available public dollars might lead to rushed projects and regrettable public pushback.

The Charleston County Housing Task Force's report noted that countywide, more than 50,000 homes and rental units are unattainable for those earning the county's median income, meaning they would have to spend more than 30% of their household income on housing. Only about 4,000 units, or 8% of the total, are considered attainable. But the task force correctly notes that money alone won't solve the problem; zoning changes, such as allowing greater densities, more townhomes and streamlined permitting also are needed. And the opportunity for more affordable housing may be greatest along the route of the Lowcountry Bus Rapid Transit project between Summerville and downtown Charleston, which isn't expected to start operating for at least five more years.

A yes vote on Question 1 would bring in new money and add urgency to those discussions. Bonding the new money likely will make sense at some point, after more specifics are on the table and voters have a clearer understanding of what they would be helping to pay for.

The Rev. Bill Stanfield of the North Charleston nonprofit Metanoia admits that this effort, if approved, marks more of a starting line than a finishing line. "We are going to work very hard to hold the county accountable." That's a laudable goal, and we all must work toward that regardless of the election's outcome next month. We believe the most effective way to ensure that accountability is to tackle this significant problem one step at a time.

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