Five years ago, the City of Charleston released a report that raised concern over the area’s housing crisis. This year, at the end of January, a second report detailed that crisis and outlined dozens of answers to the question of affordable housing the City can refer to when coming up with their solutions.
“The earlier report helped to define the need more clearly,” says the City’s director of housing, Geona Shaw Johnson. “This report goes a little bit further in giving us both strategies and best practices to address the need … It’s a lot of work, but it’s exciting, because it gives you hands-on strategies that you can begin to employ to make a difference in your neighborhoods.”
The Housing for a Fair Charleston report is a five-year plan for sustainable and inclusive growth in housing for the area. The first part of the report defines the housing crisis the city finds itself in, breaking it down and defining terms to make the information more digestible, and laying out the City’s guiding values moving forward.
“It is critical that this report is founded on a shared value proposition and a belief that places are more thoughtfully designated when community values are put first,” reads the report. “Fairness, acceptance, mobility, and resilience. These four values make up the backbone of this report and guide the recommendations made in future chapters.”
Another principle that led the team through the creation of this report was a phrase repeated by Mayor John Tecklenburg, “increasing the tools in the toolbox.” Rather than attempting to find a single solution to such a complex problem, the City instead identified a number of smaller methods that, used together, can combat the crisis.
“One of the things we found is that what we were already doing was good, but we wanted to do more,” Johnson says. “There are 37 tools that were identified, some of which we were actively engaged in already.”
Broken into categories like zoning and policy, funding, education and empathy, and capacity building, the tools outlined cover an immense amount of ground. Many of the tools deal with incentives offered to community members to do their part for housing.
“Naturally, local government plays a critical role in this,” Johnson says. “But, the work that we do, we cannot do alone. It takes a collaborative effort to make the work not only feasible, but tangible.”
South Carolina’s Bailey Bill, for example, focuses on those who own dilapidated buildings that can receive an incentive to have them renovated, offering a new opportunity for residents of Charleston to give back.
Johnson says that one of the most important factors identified in Charleston deals with naturally occurring housing, something that Johnson sees as a challenge in the community.
“That was another tool that was named in the report we prepared,” Johnson says. “That speaks clearly to one of the preeminent needs in our community, not only to create and preserve, but to sustain for the long haul.”
Some properties that fall under naturally occurring housing would be affordable to the community for two consecutive 99-year periods, because a land trust holds them over time, keeping them affordable in near perpetuity.
“We needed to find a way whereby we preserve this for the long term,” she says. “One way we’ve done that most recently is the Palmetto Community Land Trust, a program under the Charleston Redevelopment Corporation.”
As with any solution, funding is a great concern for many members of the community. This report offers 10 tools specifically for finding funding to complement other proposals. This was a key component of the report, Johnson says, because the City’s federal funding has been dwindling over time.
“Being very strategic with how we facilitated those opportunities to either increase or enhance the funding that is available to us in turn helps us when acquiring property and preserving the housing that currently exists,” Johnson explains.
This report was put together by a group of the City of Charleston’s departments and agencies, due to the challenges facing affordable housing having roots in so many other community issues, such as environmental impacts and transportation.
“Working in concert with our planning team and several other departments in the City of Charleston, we have been working over the last year and a half,” Johnson says. “We are going to sit down internally and look at what is outlined and the logical next steps.”
Johnson says the City is already actively working on implementing a number of the tools detailed in the report, and some others, which she calls low-hanging fruit, can be deployed relatively easily.