The Persistent Affordable Housing Problem Grows Despite Concerted Efforts

Apartment - urban affordable housing
Photo by George Becker from Pexels

The lack of affordable housing is a nationwide issue that restrains economic growth by shackling disposable income for families with modest incomes and preventing them from living near the available jobs. The problem is particularly acute in the Charleston area, where housing prices are booming, inventory is tight, and hospitality and tourism are a bedrock of the local economy. 

In a state seeking shelter for roughly 1.4 million low-income individuals, South Carolina has a grand total of 72,000 affordable housing units. In the Charleston region, where 10,000 new residents pour in annually and the overall housing inventory has dropped to 1990s levels, the situation is equally dire. With an estimated need for 12,286 new affordable housing units by 2030 in the City of Charleston alone, a concerted effort backed by a $20 million bond has produced 622 units over three years. Non-profits like Habitat for Humanity, The Humanities Foundation, and the South Carolina Community Loan Fund have also contributed, but the scale of the problem overwhelms these efforts. 

The region is estimated to require 30,000 affordable housing units by 2030. Other municipalities provide assistance of various kinds, but nothing even on the city’s scale.   

The result is that for thousands of local families, housing costs consume more – and sometimes much more – than the recommended 30% of income, leaving insufficient funds for healthy food, clothing, health care, transportation, education, and savings, much less recreation, and entertainment. Additionally, high housing prices have forced many families to live far away from their employment options. A maid at The Dewberry or Francis Marion hotel, a server or cook at Mt. Pleasant’s Olde Village Post House or Vickery’s on Shem Creek, a nurse’s aide at Roper or MUSC – none of them can afford to live nearby, and so must spend inordinate amounts of time on buses or even more of their limited money on an automobile. 

The Lowcountry Graduate Center recognizes that this state of affairs segregates communities, constrains economic development, and negatively affects overall quality of life throughout the tri-county area and thus supports efforts by public administration, private industry including financial services, and the ingenuity of educated leaders in architecture and construction science. 

The Effort to Create Affordable Housing 

Municipal and business leaders have supported efforts to mitigate the lack of affordable housing. Voters in Charleston in 2017 approved borrowing $20 million for affordable housing. Charleston County put a measure before voters last November for $130 million borrowing authority to address affordable housing, but a lack of accountability in the proposal led to its defeat.  

“It’s all about the availability of financial resources,” says Tracy Doran, executive director of The Humanities Foundation, which creates affordable housing in the Southeast and provides resident services and homeless prevention. “It just doesn’t work without funding.” 

Geona Shaw Johnson, Director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Charleston, says there are two other keys to unlocking more affordable housing. One is streamlined permitting. For builders, expedited review of site plans, building permits, and storm and wastewater permits reduces the cost of constructing affordable housing. 

Another key is offering incentives that make it profitable for private developers to build affordable housing. Currently in Charleston, for any development over a certain size, developers must set aside 20% of units for affordable housing and maintain that status for 25 years. They can sidestep that requirement with an in-lieu payment, which most developers have done. In three years the in-lieu payments produced $11 million for the city to invest back into affordable housing but did not generate many new affordable units. Shaw Johnson says the city is examining ways to improve the program. 

Federal low-income housing tax credits, in existence since 1986, have also provided relief. A 2018 review by the General Accounting Office found the credit financed about 50,000 affordable rental units annually over a five-year period, a number spread over many of the nation’s 3,142 counties. Legislation supporting affordable housing tax credits introduced in the South Carolina Senate by Marlon Kimpson, (D – Charleston) has stalled in committee. 

A Mindset Change About Affordable Housing  

As long as the economics of affordable housing are unfavorable for private developers, the supply of affordable housing will continue to fall behind demand.  Many community leaders have come to understand how this issue can hamstring thousands of local families and slow economic growth. They also recognize that the issue transcends governments and non-profits and requires the engagement of economic development entities and the private sector. Indeed, says Shaw Johnson, “housing should be recognized as a right. I believe when we change how we think about housing, especially affordable housing, it will change the level of investment and laws that ensure we can meet the need.” 

“Our choices either ameliorate or exacerbate decades of redlining, segregation, and structural inequities,” wrote Maren Trochmann, a political science professor at College of Charleston in a Post and Courier op-ed column. “They can lead to inclusive, safe, healthy neighborhoods in which engaged citizens feel connected to their communities, or they can entrench the view that we are too different, too separate, too dissimilar to live and work together.”  

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