Charleston takes multipronged approach to affordable housing

We Stand For Progress Reports Jun. 3, 2019, 10:53am

Like many growing metropolitan areas, Charleston is finding itself facing the dilemma of how to attract a diverse workforce—particularly when its economy includes such relatively low-paying industries as tourism—when the price of housing is beyond its reach.

It is a tall order, according to the Charleston County Affordable Housing Task Force. Presenting a summary of its Comprehensive Affordable Housing Interim Report to the Charleston City Council last month, task force representatives said that 70 percent of area households pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. 

The estimated number of units that will need to be affordable for seniors and others (different from Section 8 in that units simply have lower rents without calculating tenants’ incomes) is staggering: The area will need 78,000 housing units by 2030—5,200 a year—with half of them needing to be affordable housing, according to the report.

The city of Charleston, however, has a plan and is already taking action on it. Geona Shaw Johnson, director of housing and community development for the city of Charleston, said the city has a mixed-use housing ordinance that requires developers who want to take advantage of certain zoning densities to either provide a percentage of that development for workforce housing or to pay a fee that the city will use to offset the cost of such housing elsewhere in the vicinity.

In addition, in 2017 Charleston voters approved a bond issue that will fund an estimated 630 units in the city’s urban core as well as suburban areas.

Shaw Johnson said diversity and spreading out is important as well as affordable housing for both seniors and families.

“We attempt to purchase or acquire properties that are located near amenities and services that will be helpful for those families,” she said. “For example, on a public transit line, or near doctors’ offices or grocery stores. We attempt to focus on some key items … that will ensure that family can meet their needs and live comfortably.”

Funding for new construction, infill and rehabilitated affordable housing can come from a variety of sources—federal, state and local in many forms, including the low-income-housing tax program. In addition to giving incentives to developers, Shaw Johnson said, the city and nonprofits also purchase land themselves, “because we can control to some degree what that costs and be able to provide some alternatives.”

Shaw Johnson said that the city of Charleston and its officials have been and continue to be committed to ensuring that its residents have affordable housing, but not all of its neighbors are totally on board.

“Of course, the city is part of a county,” she said, “and we find we have to consistently educate and advocate to get other officials to understand the need, and understand what the impact of a lack of affordable housing has on our economic base and on the livability of our community across the board.

“We’re getting there, but we’re not fully there yet,” she said.

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