With the lack of affordable housing an increasingly daunting challenge in the Charleston area, city and county leaders and other local organizations spent much of last year looking at ways to alleviate that pressure.
On the City of Charleston’s side, the recently adopted comprehensive plan dealt heavily with the issue, indicating a need for 16,351 new affordable housing units by 2030, a mark Charleston City Councilman Ross Appel said would be difficult to reach.
“It’s a supply-and-demand problem,” he said during a July workshop for the comprehensive plan. “We have to get more supply in the market, and it’s got to come in all forms. But there’s only so many affordable housing units the City of Charleston can bring on board … In any other market, if there’s a pricing problem, you have to find what’s wrong with that first to find why there’s a supply-and-demand distortion.”
The problem extends far beyond just the Lowcountry, however, with cities all over the country struggling to keep up with increasing costs of living — changes that can be punishing for longtime residents.
The Charleston Housing Authority (CHA) has been working alongside city leaders on a variety of affordable housing projects; the primary focus isn’t on the buildings, but on those who live in them, and the diversity of those communities in particular.
“Everybody agrees — everybody — economics has driven the cost of housing sky-high, and downtown Charleston, it’s even worse,” said Don Cameron, the agency CEO who retired at the end of 2021. “It is of greater importance to the city, its future and its health, that we find a way to create more affordable housing for more mixes of people who are economically challenged so we never become one of anything. Part of our vitality is not just our beautiful buildings, but the people themselves.”
To that end, projects range from new public housing complexes like Grace Homes, which opened in November 2020, to refurbishing old complexes through the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program.
“The RAD program is probably going to have the biggest impact on affordable housing in the community moving forward,” said new agency CEO Arthur Milligan. “All 1,407 of our units are going to be either rehabilitated or repositioned to be totally different properties. And all of these units will be Section 8 units, with rent partially paid for by the [federal Department of Housing and Urban Development].”
The CHA is a nongovernmental entity run by nonpartisan volunteers, a structure that separates the group from other city-led efforts to house low-income residents.
“The purpose of this housing authority is to provide affordable housing to low-income individuals,” Milligan said. “We’re prepared to do that for the lowest of the low, up to about 80% of the median income. Since we’re run by volunteers, we don’t have the politics that would be in an entity run by an elected official. That keeps housing based on need, not on political thoughts.”
However, many of the affordable housing woes felt in Charleston stem from sites overseen by county leaders. Joseph Floyd Manor, in particular, has made headlines in the last year for poor living conditions, an issue that has not yet been fully addressed.
County residents voted against a 2020 referendum to funnel millions toward affordable housing, but after council shifted to Democratic control with two new members — Kylon Middleton and Rob Wehrman — housing has nonetheless remained a focus.
Details about current affordable housing projects in motion at the county level and potential projects on the horizon are scarce, but county leaders say they have been hard at work.
“We have heard from citizens who are concerned about affordable housing in Charleston County, and we are working diligently to address those concerns,” County Councilwoman Anna Johnson told the City Paper. “Our administration now has a new department over community revitalization and housing affordability, we have dedicated millions of American Rescue Act funds for housing stability and our staff is working with a consultant to create a comprehensive affordable housing plan for the county. Affordable housing is one of our top priorities as we move into the 2022 new year, and I look forward to working with council and the community on affordable housing.”
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Aside from projects erecting new housing units or refurbishing old ones, the conversation around affordable housing has become more abstract, with some advocates reframing language, using terms like “accessible” or “attainable” rather than “affordable.” The semantics can lead to some confusion.
“When you talk about affordable housing, you get 14 different definitions,” Cameron said. “Many look at it as a stepladder, and at the very bottom are the homeless people, above that are fixed income with very little to work with — they need Section 8, they need subsidies,” he said, referring to the federal housing voucher program. “When we look at it, it’s all of those that need to be served. We need housing for everyone — from those who are most desperate to those that need only a little help.”