Charleston-area governments are scrambling to boost the amount of affordable housing in Charleston as home and rental prices continue to skyrocket. But a stronger partnership with local housing authorities have been a boon to city leaders struggling to find the space and opportunities for new units.
When outgoing Charleston Housing Authority (CHA) CEO Don Cameron stepped up to the plate in 1975, the group wasn’t held in high esteem, he said, mostly because it didn’t have the kind of good working relationships it needed with the community. He likened the situation to an ailing marriage — at some points, you just stop talking to your partner. But now, he reflects, the city and his former agency are active partners.
As Cameron readied for retirement with the new year, we caught up with him to look back on the last few decades of his service, and a quick look ahead for him and the city agency he is leaving behind.
City Paper: In your time with the housing authority, what projects do you think have had the biggest impact on the community?
Don Cameron: Two things: one building-wise and one people-wise. In 1982, we did what was called “scattered infill housing,” which was integrating public housing into existing neighborhoods so that contextually, it just blended in. The structure did not identify its purpose, nor did it stigmatize those who lived in the structure. And for that, behind me on the wall are three of the four awards, one from the [American Institute of Architects], one from the National Endowment and one from the President of the United States — the only one for public housing ever to be given.
On the people side: The city and the housing authority regularly talk, regularly work together, and we lean upon one another, too. We don’t just inform one another — we lean on each other to the benefit of the overall population we want to serve, and that’s something I’m proud about tremendously.
CP: What have been the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome during your time?
Cameron: The first was the skepticism that the Housing Authority really cared, that we could do something better than what had been done in the past. Here we house, then and now, very low-income people who have lots of challenges, not just economically. A lot of other agencies get money to provide services to those same people, and when I came, the housing authority was not an actively engaged partner. We’ve changed that, and we are now viewed as, “Well, we better call the housing authority because they house the people we want to serve, and maybe we can work together.”
CP: What about Charleston made your whole experience unique and memorable?
Cameron: I love history, and this is a great place to be for someone who loves history. But also, my mother passed away in 1977, and my dad married the assistant post-mistress from the Isle of Palms, and through that, I gained five brothers and sisters and five more cousins, so all of a sudden I went from a very small family living here to a very big family with roots here. So this really is home. It’s been a blessing to work in the city of Charleston, live on the Isle of Palms and in Mount Pleasant. It’s just a very special place to me.
CP: And what’s next for you as we come into the new year?
Cameron: I will still do some consulting with the housing authority, helping them with the transition over the next year — minimal, but as they need it. Hopefully, my wife and I will do some traveling, if COVID will ever stop. My wife would love to go back to Europe — who wouldn’t? — maybe explore some places we visited before, but now with more time.
CP: What’s still left to accomplish in Charleston for affordable housing? What are you leaving for those coming in after you?
Cameron: We have to increase the stock. If you want a bumper sticker for Charleston affordability, it would say, “We don’t have enough, and what we do have isn’t affordable” — to working people and to those who are economically challenged. I think the housing authority has not just the opportunity, but the will and the courage and frankly the financial wherewithal to be a partner to do that, with both the city and private partners.
An easy way to look at the transition, because a lot of time with transitions it’s, “Oh, they’re leaving, they’re closing the door; let’s start a new chapter.” But Arthur Milligan, the incoming CEO, sees it as we’re all on the same team, and it’s a relay team. Don is going to hand off the baton to Art, and that’s how the board views it, too, and the mayor.