College of Charleston senior Christian Kirby was “desperate” to find a place to live after transferring from the University of South Carolina two years ago.
At 18, she didn’t understand the city’s dynamics too well, but she knew she needed to be close to campus.
“When I originally looked at some houses … they were on Radcliffe [Street], which isn’t that far, but at the time I didn’t know that, ’cause I hadn’t lived here,” she says, corralling her dog at the sight of another one down the sidewalk.
Kirby, a public health major from Florence, now pays $1,039 for her room in a two-bedroom unit at Sterling Campus Center Apartments, a living situation she’s not too happy with. The room is expensive, and the main office takes a long time to respond to her work requests.
The “off-campus” complex is conveniently tucked behind King Street storefronts and the College’s Sottile Theatre and School of the Arts. It’s filled to the brim with the typical amenities used to lure in young, inexperienced renters and their anxious parents: a full-service fitness center, wi-fi, and a hyper-modern, if sterile, design approach perfect for living in a historic city without the downsides of decaying property. A casual observer could easily mistake the eight-story building as part of the school’s official presence in Harleston Village.
That’s exactly the kind of student-focused development that the city needs more of, according to Charleston city planner Jacob Lindsey. The Sterling apartments are a “great example” of the creative use of the peninsula’s limited land space, he says.
“Off-campus apartment projects don’t necessarily enhance the city if they’re so far away that students have to drive to campus,” Lindsey says. “That’s not a good thing.”
Most importantly, these spaces keep students concentrated in one area. Though no official data or studies back this up (yet), the city’s thinking goes something like this: The more student-focused developments are erected, the less students will have to seek traditional housing options, leaving more housing open for families.
“In working with neighborhood organizations, we often hear that they would prefer students to live closer to campus in centrally-managed apartments as opposed to in houses in the center of neighborhoods,” Lindsey says. “We want neighborhoods to be stable housing for residents of our city.”
Only one of the most recent off-campus developments in the area fits that bill. SkyGarden, which offers beds starting at a whopping $1,444 per month in a four-bedroom configuration, is located along the eastern edge of Cannonborough-Elliotborough, about a 16-minute walk from CofC.
930 NoMo in the East Central neighborhood is a sweltering 36-minute trudge from campus. The campus shuttle was a nice touch, says Kelly Miletich, but the monthly $930 price tag on a bedroom in a 4/4 proved too costly for her daughter.
For the Maryland-based family, navigating Charleston’s rental market was a challenge.
“I think, for the most part, it doesn’t keep students with very tight budgets in mind,” Miletich says of the Charleston market. “I think it really caters to a group of people that have significantly more money.”
After scrolling through the notorious CofC parent Listserv, Miletich gave her daughter, a senior, a fanciful set of conditions if she wanted any help with rent: Find a room in the peninsula, close to the school, for $800 per month — including utilities. “She goes, ‘I don’t think I can do it,'” Miletich recalls.
In early August, a cursory glance at listings on Craigslist, ApartmentFinder, and Zillow shows very few options available under $900 per month. Utilities are rarely included.
Still, Miletch’s daughter did the impossible, and she’s holding on to her Radcliffeborough find until she graduates.
With growing student populations and limited space, the scramble for affordable student housing in Charleston isn’t likely to improve any time soon. Lindsey says last year’s opening of SkyGarden was the most recent in terms of student-centered housing. Two developments under construction are now being marketed to students, one at 530 Meeting St. and a more walkable one at 595 King St. with a wrap-around banner promoting “luxury student apartments.” Another at 363-369 King Street is making its way through the approval process, Lindsey says.
CofC maintains 3,408 on-campus beds to house the approximately 11,000 students expected at the university this coming school year. As a public institution, spokesperson Mike Robertson says the school is not allowed to recommend any specific off-campus housing options to students. (The school does have an office of community relations that can help “point students in the right direction” if they’re having issues with their landlords or neighbors.) The university also forbids off-campus developments from advertising on campus, a protective measure that puts the onus on inexperienced, often first-time renters to find their own way. The Medical University of South Carolina, on the other hand, does not offer on-campus housing, though it hosts an internal listing website for housing options throughout the city.
MUSC Off-Campus Housing Coordinator Nadia Mariutto has been helping students traverse the city’s housing market for over 10 years. A decade ago, students had to rely on more traditional options like neighborhood houses with spare bedrooms, she says.
“Now we have apartment complexes, carriage houses, a lot more options, but certainly higher prices,” she adds.
Neither universities have plans to add on-campus housing in the near future.
MUSC student Haley Thompson and her husband had to do what many regular, full-time residents in rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods are doing: move off the peninsula.
“Trying to find ‘affordable’ housing as a professional student is simply not possible in Charleston,” she says. “Now I have a 30 minute commute, and [my husband] commutes an hour or more.”
Shaun Paddock has two children at CofC. Her daughter, a junior, shares a house with three young women in Harleston Village near the school, paying $870 a month. Her son, a senior, lives in Wraggborough in a room priced at $510 per month. “We started looking in January and February, because by March, it’s slim pickings,” she says.
Paddock says that between rent, utilities, and food, she contributes a little over $1,000 per child per month. Asked if her children could make do in Charleston on their own, her answer arrives quicker than I can finish the question.
“There’s no way.”