The urban geography of the Sergeant Jasper apartment building has always been peculiar. The low-rent, high-rise apartment building is situated just north of Broad Street in the midst of millionaire homes, a small real estate miracle that has allowed students, tour guides, and F&B workers to live near the southern end of the peninsula, rubbing elbows with the lawyers, tycoons, and socialites South of Broad.
Now that the Sergeant Jasper’s owners at the Beach Company have announced the building’s impending demolition, some of the residents are wondering whether they’ll be able to afford to rent again downtown. “Oh no, definitely not,” says Ryan Camelon, a researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina who moved into the Sergeant Jasper from Boston just a month ago. “I think this is the nicest for the cheapest amount of money. Everything downtown’s pretty expensive.”
He’s right. Most housing downtown is expensive. And with the loss of the Sergeant Jasper’s 221 reasonably priced units, the available stock of workforce housing just got that much smaller.
The Sergeant Jasper was named after a Revolutionary War hero, but it was never a place for old money. Up until the demolition was announced in mid-February, it was still possible to rent a studio there for $835 a month or split a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate for $585 apiece. Savannah Mooneyhan, another member of the final generation of renters, says most of the residents are students and downtown workers, plus a few older longtime residents and young families. She’s determined to find another rental downtown, but she knows her options are limited. Residents are being evicted one floor at a time, starting at the top in mid-May and ending at the bottom in August.
“Even when you’re looking on Craigslist, you’re competing with 200 people at the same time, so I’m looking now,” Mooneyhan says.
For Mooneyhan, who works at the downtown Irish bar Tommy Condon’s and attends the College of Charleston, leaving the peninsula is a nonstarter. “Parking at CofC is terrible and expensive,” Mooneyhan says. “I’m going to stay downtown. If I have to move to the other side of the Crosstown, I’ll do that before I move off the peninsula.”
Karen Bacot, director of marketing for the Beach Company, says the company has not yet decided what sort of residential development will go in the Sergeant Jasper’s place, but the plan is to include some affordable housing. She says the company is still meeting with the Preservation Society and the Historic Charleston Foundation to discuss the next steps, and any plans will have to be vetted by the Board of Architectural Review and other city agencies.
Whatever gets built, it won’t be as tall as the 16-story Sergeant Jasper. “No one wants to build that tall again — us included,” Bacot says. “Everybody has agreed on that one thing.”
In the meantime, the Beach Company is organizing a mid-March housing fair for its current Sergeant Jasper tenants, inviting the company’s competitors to come and offer reasonable downtown rental rates. Alternatively, the company is offering to let renters lock in their current rental rates if they move across the river to another Beach Company property, Mt. Pleasant’s Riviera at Seaside.
“I think there’s a lot of speculation and fear that things are going to change wildly, but that’s an assumption that’s been misguided,” Bacot says. “We understand the workforce is important, and we’re going to incorporate that in any plans.”
A quantifiable crisis
Bikability and livability, two popular crusades of City Council and the latter-day Riley administration, depend on the availability of workforce housing within close range of workplaces — particularly downtown, where parking is scarce and roads are narrow. But according to a new Housing Needs Assessment published in February by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG), that sort of housing is getting harder and harder to find. The Charleston area, it says, is in the midst of a “housing affordability crisis.”
For starters, the report showed that a worker must earn $45.11 an hour to afford buying an average-priced home in the Charleston area. The average hourly wage in the area? $19.80. The Housing Affordability Index, based on a ratio of median household income to income needed to purchase a median-priced house, shows that housing is less affordable in Charleston than in similar Southern cities including Austin, Greenville, Raleigh, and Savannah, a fact that the report says “negatively impacts our ability to attract new industries.”
According to the report, the news is even bleaker for renters than homeowners: In the Charleston area, 50 percent of renters are living in housing that they can’t afford, compared to 33 percent of homeowners. (Unaffordable housing is defined in the study as costing more than 30 percent of monthly household income.)
Of the three counties, Charleston County had the highest percentages of renters and owners who can’t afford their homes. This might be one of the reasons why, according to a recent census on county-to-county migration flows, Charleston County is losing more residents to Berkeley and Dorchester than it is gaining from them.
The reasons for the affordable housing crisis, according to the report, are myriad:
• Local zoning regulations encourage higher-priced, single-family housing developments in automobile-dependent communities.
• While regional wages have grown by 20 percent since 2005, wages are still only 85 percent of the national average.
• The majority of job opportunities are in areas where housing is least affordable.
And the housing crunch is not just a problem for college kids complaining about the rent being too damn high. “The availability of homes affordable to existing and new residents that are located close to employment centers and existing public facilities and services has declined,” the report says. “Local jurisdictions, and ultimately taxpayers, are left burdened with costs from the unintended consequences of sprawling development.”
In downtown Charleston, high rents can mean that workers at some of the most iconic historic sites are unable to live anywhere near the historic part of town. Chelsy Clark, who works as a docent at the Powder Magazine and the Old Exchange Building, says that none of her Exchange Building coworkers except her director actually live on the peninsula. Most of them live on James Island, and she lives in Hanahan.
It’s not that Clark doesn’t want to live downtown. She says she’d love to ride a bike to work instead of sitting in traffic for an hour every morning. But she says that when she looked at renting an apartment downtown several years ago, she decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. All she could find within her price range was a studio on the upper Eastside that was simply too small for her and her fiancé.
“Our place now is $100 cheaper,” she says, “and it actually has a bedroom.”
A progressive future?
According to the Beach Company website, the Sergeant Jasper was the first local apartment building to be built with a Federal Housing Administration loan. At the time of its construction in 1949, then-Mayor William Morrison told the News and Courier, “I am delighted that Charleston will have the advantage of this excellent apartment building which is so badly needed and which indicates that the sponsors have real faith in the progressive future of Charleston.”
Today, new residential developments downtown are being marketed as decidedly upscale. The recently constructed Elan Midtown boutique apartments on Meeting Street (website slogan: “All Status, No Quo”) offer one-bedroom floorplans ranging from $1,565 to $2,000 per month. Farther north on the peninsula, the new East Central Lofts opened in the fall of 2013 offering one- and two-bedroom options ranging from $850 to $1,800. Even in new student housing, like the 400 Meeting St. apartments, a single bedroom in a four-bedroom apartment starts at $924 a month. Luxe features at 400 Meeting include 42-inch flat-screen TVs, cable, and a clubhouse and fitness center.
Meanwhile, as of January, the City of Charleston and Charleston County Housing Authorities had 5,068 people on their waiting lists for public and subsidized housing. According to the BCDCOG report, it can take two years or more for people on those waiting lists to get into housing.
Geona Shaw Johnson, the City of Charleston’s director of Housing and Community Development, is one of the people working on the housing shortage. Her office works to expand the supply of affordable housing by distributing federal funds to nonprofit and for-profit organizations for new housing construction and rehabilitation. In 2009, her department bought the Beach Company’s Longborough condominiums near Wagener Terrace for $125 per square foot and started selling the 42 units to first-time homebuyers at discounted rates.
Between homeownership initiatives, low-income rental developments, and the Charleston Housing Authority’s subsidized housing, Johnson says 2,228 affordable houses and apartments have been made available downtown in the past 10 years.
“If you look at what we have done, I think we have done a good job,” Johnson says. “Is that to say the need is not there? No, absolutely not, the need still exists. But I think cooperatively, when we work together, we can begin to address the need.”
City Councilman Mike Seekings, whose district includes the Sergeant Jasper apartments, says the aging high-rise tower was clearly “at the end of its useful life,” and he’s optimistic that any new development on the property will include affordable housing. In preliminary talks, he says the Beach Company has been leaning toward making the site a planned unit development (PUD), a mixed-use development that by definition includes some affordable housing.
Seekings says he doesn’t see any appetite for rent control policy on City Council. “That’s a formula that has failed,” he says. But while affordable housing has gotten scarce in his own neighborhood of Harleston Village, he still sees pockets of affordable housing popping up organically across the peninsula. “I think you’ll see that corridor of East Bay and Morrison Drive will become an area where you’ll find some more affordable housing. Upper King, Upper Meeting, Cannonborough-Elliotborough — my sense is that that’s what’s happening,” Seekings says. “Whether I’m actually right about that scientifically, we’ll see.”
He also says the city can continue working with private developers to encourage PUDs and other affordable-housing plans.
“There is only so much the city can do with private development when it comes to affordable housing,” Seekings says, “but whatever we can do, we will.”
Crunching the Numbers on the Housing Crunch
How much is too much to spend on housing? In the eyes of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, families who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered cost-burdened and may have difficulty paying for necessities like food, transportation, and medical care.
By that measure, according to a February report from the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Chamber of Governments (BCDCOG), 35 percent of homeowners and 50 percent of renters in Charleston County are living in housing they cannot afford.
But how bad is the problem specifically in downtown Charleston? Pretty bad, it seems.
Using ZIP-code-specific data from the Census FactFinder, we analyzed the proportion of contract rents that are affordable for people making 80 percent* of the county’s median per-capita income. For the 29403 ZIP code, which includes downtown north of Calhoun Street, 48 percent of housing was affordable. For 29401, south of Calhoun, just 24 percent was affordable.
Finally, we wanted to get a very specific snapshot of rentals available downtown for young, single workers who are willing to get a roommate. So we did some amateur number-crunching** and found that, in a three-day sample of Craigslist rental postings for downtown Charleston, just 34 percent of available rentals were affordable to a person earning the median income for the county.
In other words, if you’re a middle-class worker seeking affordable rent on the peninsula, you’re up against stiff competition. Happy apartment hunting, y’all.
*Housing agencies including the Charleston Department of Housing and Community Development define workforce housing as housing that’s affordable to families making 80 to 120 percent of the area median income, so we used 80 percent as a starting point.
**A note about methodology: To determine a threshold for affordable rentals, we took 30 percent of the Census-reported median income for Charleston County ($29,858) and divided by 12 to get a monthly rate of $746. Looking at three days’ worth of downtown rental postings on Craigslist (Feb. 18-20, sample size n=169), we tallied up the number of rentals that were affordable (less than or equal to $746) and unaffordable (more than $746). For multi-room rentals, we divided rent by number of bedrooms to get the rate that a renter would pay if he or she split the rent with roommates.