Exponential growth in the technology, hospitality and tourism sectors, as well as thousands of jobs associated with the Port of Charleston, are all touted as examples of an economic boom for Greater Charleston, but a lack of affordable housing and increasing commuter congestion may soon outweigh all the benefits if not immediately addressed.
The cracks are already starting to show, says Josh Dix, government affairs director of the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.
“We’re seeing a drastic decline in the restaurant industry for one,” Dix told Palmetto Business Daily in a telephone interview. “Folks are shifting their hours of operation in order to accommodate staff travel time, and restaurants are closing because they can’t get staff living close to where they work.”
Despite the evidence that housing and employment are intertwined, Dix says, finding a solution remains a challenge.
“Employers want to know where their employees will be living," Dix said. "Housing affordability and housing accessibility is a big issue that we face, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to accomplish those things. It’s kind of a layered strategy and approach. You have to look at where people are and where the jobs are going, and how do we best place those things together.”
Dix said the crisis affects all economic levels. People who can afford million-dollar homes are struggling to find suitable places to live near their work as much as minimum-wage earners are. The situation is complicated by the multi-jurisdictional nature of a region with three counties and a wide range of settings from coastal to urban to rural.
Also complicated is the issue of the different workforces required by a diverse set of industries. For example, millennial workers who are so attractive to the tech industry are famously selective about where they live, tending to favor livable, walkable urban areas that also have green space and recreational opportunities.
“You have to look at where people are and where the jobs are going, and how do we best place those things,” Dix said. “If we can get people living closer to where they work, that alleviates the stress on our roads and infrastructure, and it also is a cost-of-living benefit for folks who want to live in the area that they work. It’s a bigger community-building and planning strategy rather than one or the other. All these different things working independently; they all have to work together.”
Dix believes that smart planning for population growth is key to a continuing healthy economy.
“Also, it deals with working with government," he said. "How do we get parcels rezoned so that we can have more density where it's correctly appropriated? Unfortunately, density is a four-letter word in Charleston. But we have to have growth where it can be sustained and, unfortunately, right now we're in an environment where our regulatory and political climate encourages sprawl, which further exacerbates traffic transportation woes and things like that.”
There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. Dix cites the Reboot the Commute program as just one example, in which some employers have rearranged operating hours to ease commuter congestion.
“Another one of the big things that we're trying to get off the ground right now is what's called ‘transit-oriented development,’" he added. "We’re trying to get off the ground Low Country Rapid Transit, which is going to be kind of our public monorail-type system. But in order to do that, we have to go and get zoning that will allow density along those [routes] to people who can live along that corridor, and that works for Summerville all the way into the peninsula.”
The Trident CEO Council Stands For Collaboration.