Robert Mills Manor | Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

A handful of Charleston’s public housing complexes will be renovated, rehabilitated or updated under a program that leaders hope will address the needs and wants of those living in public housing or in need of more options.

After being adopted by the City of Charleston in 2019, the Charleston Housing Authority’s (CHA) Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) Program has settled on three public housing complexes in downtown Charleston where they will begin their work.

“The neighborhood around public housing development has changed significantly, and there are now opportunities for redevelopment that didn’t exist 30-40 years ago,” said Donald Cameron, CEO of the housing authority. But he said that these new opportunities will maintain the values of the properties’ original construction. “Everything we own was built as family properties, and they will still be family properties after redevelopment. That’s our commitment to the community.”

RAD programs, overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), allows local housing authorities to assess public housing properties and determine their long-term sustainability or viability as a community asset using two tools: rehabilitation and repositioning. 

Repositioning allows authorities to determine whether a property is substandard structurally or needs a readjustment to its cost of operation. Rehabilitation keeps buildings where they stand, but borrows a substantial amount of money to renovate the buildings and bring them back up to standard.

At the moment, three downtown public housing complexes are at different stages of the RAD process: 

Kiawah Homes, built in 1953 and home to 61 apartments at 2226 Sunnyside Drive, on the upper peninsula

Meeting Street Manor, built in 1937 and home to 201 apartments at 230 Hanover St. 

Robert Mills Manor, built in 1938 and home to 222 apartments at 83 Beaufain St. on the lower peninsula

That leaves more several other public housing complexes throughout Charleston that may or may not be tackled in the future. 

“We have 1,407 public housing families we are currently providing assistance to, and we are committed that when this whole process is done, whether its rehabilitation or repositioning, there will still be 1,407 families protected through federal subsidy,” Cameron said. 

In most cases of RAD program renovations, the repairs and updates to structures are minor, and families are able to stay in place. But in the case of significant rehabilitation, it can be impossible for families to remain in the same place. But CHA doesn’t just leave them out in the cold.

Through RAD, the CHA is able to relocate families and pay all related expenses to the families during the reconstruction period, which can last up to 12 months. During the process, the HUD provides rent assistance and housing vouchers to those families to help offset the financial burden further, granting the family the right to return and guaranteeing them the same methodology in determining the cost of rent.

Adrienne Riley, with the CHA, said even though the moving can be inconvenient for families, ultimately, the program is for them, and she believes they will be happy with the end result. 

“This program means, for them, what they’ve been asking for: an up-to-date home to reside in,” she said. “To be able to see the change over time — public housing has been in effect for 80+ years, and with this new overhaul, we would finally be meeting the needs of the people.”

Though the City of Charleston works closely with the CHA, officials declined to comment on the program, saying they would likely only repeat what RAD leaders would have already said. City Council members have previously said they supported the adoption of RAD in Charleston, however, despite the challenges of implementation. 

“I think it is a great program for us to adopt; in the long-run, the families will be happy,” Riley said. “Changes are hard, and I think a lot of times we like to say, ‘This is what we’re used to,’ but as long as we continue to walk the path we are going, they will be OK.”

And in every case so far, she said, none of this has been sprung on the affected families out of nowhere. The process began as early as 2016, when the first proposals were made to the City of Charleston and the first meetings with families in public housing were held. 

“I started informing them about the meetings to give them information about what would happen, and we had some families who were very excited about the process and available whenever I gave them notice, and we could move forward immediately,” Riley said. “But we had some families who were very frustrated because it’s a long process, and some didn’t understand what exactly was happening.”

“To hear the contractors and look at the designs they are making for the residents — how the new house will look for them — that’s so exciting, and I think they would be excited as well,” she said.

And, Riley said, Charleston has a lot of catching up to do. Cameron said Charleston’s RAD program was pitched after a few years of waiting cautiously and observing similar programs in other cities as far west as Kentucky and as far north as New York. 

“We are very late in getting into this project,” Riley said. “Over the last 10 years, RAD has been in a lot of other cities and states, and we are just now finally moving forward.”