Mayor Tecklenburg addresses affordable housing
When it comes to accolades, Charleston’s cup runneth over. Not only is the Holy City enjoying its fifth year as “The Best City in the U.S. and Canada” (Travel + Leisure Magazine), but it has also been designated as one of the “15 Most Dynamic Cities” (worth.com) as well as a “Top East Coast City Attracting Millennials” (inc.com).
While all of that attention has certainly increased Charleston’s desirability as a place to live and visit, it is not without its challenges. For many, finding affordable housing in the Charleston area is becoming more and more problematic. On Oct. 4, City of Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg took up the issue while serving as guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Daniel Island’s weekly meeting at the Daniel Island Club.
“Most people think about affordable housing as being housing provided for those with very low income,” he told the audience. “But what is happening in this market place, and we’re not unique in the United States…but in most urban areas that are successfully growing, real estate prices have gone up and wages, for positions like teachers, policemen, firemen, nurses, hospitality workers, have remained relatively flat. Normal working families have a hard time finding a place they can afford to live.”
The result, explained Tecklenburg, is that people are going to areas on the outskirts of the Charleston region, such as Summerville, to find less expensive properties.
“That’s where you have to go to find a home anywhere close to $200,000 these days,” he said. “…Most working families can’t afford a $500,000 to $1 million home. And it’s really compounded this transportation problem we have. Because people can’t afford to live close to where they work and so they go out to the other side of Summerville and we end up getting 100,000 cars a day coming and going on I-26, and many of them are working downtown or in North Charleston.”
In addition to a lack of adequate affordable housing close to employment centers, there are other factors impacting the issue, added Tecklenburg. Charleston’s population is surging - and so is development.
“There is an anti-development consciousness in our region right now,” he said. “And I understand that because of all the growth and we haven’t kept up with the infrastructure. But we do have a net of 30 something people coming to Charleston every day. And we can’t just send out an edict and stop that. In my view, we have to smartly accommodate where it makes sense for some of this growth to occur.”
Two areas Tecklenburg believes are good locations for growth are the upper peninsula and neck area, as well as the southern part of North Charleston. He also believes there needs to be more development near public transit centers.
MAKING PROPERTIES AFFORDABLE AND ATTAINABLE
In Charleston, for a family of four, the median income right now is $68,800, said Tecklenburg. Thirty percent of average median income (AMI) is considered extremely low income, he continued (according to HUD, housing that costs 30 percent of a household’s monthly income is considered “affordable”). But there are considerable variations between what’s affordable at AMI and what’s available in the marketplace. There is also a gap in what the mayor dubbed “workforce housing,” an income level for which you are not eligible for any government programs or subsidies for housing, but you still generally have a problem finding an affordable place to live.
“A two-bedroom apartment…if you made the AMI here in Charleston you could afford or rent at $775 per month,” continued Tecklenburg. “Whereas the market place is $1175 or more. The same thing can be figured out for home buyers. A family of four who has a median income here in Charleston can afford a home at about $247,000…There’s a mismatch between what’s available in the marketplace and what a lot of working families can afford.”
To combat the problem, Tecklenburg is working diligently with other city representatives and partnering organizations to come up with solutions. There are already a few things in place that are helping, he said. Non-profit organizations such as the Humanities Foundation have created affordable housing locally using federal and state tax credits as a way to subsidize their investment, noted Tecklenburg. Renters must demonstrate they are within certain income levels to qualify. The Charleston Housing Authority has similar programs, he said.
“We have over 2000 units with the Charleston Housing Authority that we’ve had for a number of years,” continued Tecklenburg. “And we also do a program where we build and renovate single family homes and we sell them to folks that are in those qualifying income levels.”
The city has also instituted mixed-use workforce housing, a voluntary zoning category that allows a developer to increase their density and get more units per acre, in exchange for setting aside 20 percent of the units for workforce housing for a period of 25 years (previously it was 15 percent of units for 10 years).
“These new apartments that you’ll start seeing coming out of the ground in the upper part of Charleston, most of them have this requirement on them,” said Tecklenburg.
Developers can also pay a fee in lieu of providing the units - and monies contributed go into a special fund to create more affordable housing, added Tecklenburg. The city is also forming the Palmetto Community Land Trust in partnership with the Historical Charleston Foundation. The trust can purchase a lot and build a house and then sell to a qualified buyer.
“The catch is that after a certain period of time the buyer, the owner, can sell the house, but he’s not selling the dirt underneath it,” explained Tecklenburg. “He’s required to always sell to another qualified buyer…It’s a way of doing the Habitat for Humanity model, but making it perpetual.”
A PLEA TO TAXPAYERS
Another way Mayor Tecklenburg and City Council plan to attack the city’s affordable housing needs is by putting the issue to voters in next month’s general election in the form of a $20 million bond referendum.
“We’re asking voters to allow the city to float a bond for $20 million that we would have to invest in affordable housing - and it would be for a variety of things we would propose to do with those funds,” said Tecklenburg.
Among those initiatives is for the city to make land acquisitions for multi-family housing projects, in partnership with other organizations, and to continue purchasing older homes and buildings in need of rehabilitation and using them to create new affordable housing opportunities. With pent up demand for approximately 5000 new units in the Charleston region, Tecklenburg said successful passage of the $20 million bond referendum will allow the city to at least make a dent.
“My goal is to create at least 800 new units of housing in the city,” he said. “…But we need all jurisdictions thinking about it…What you need to address affordable housing is just every tool in the toolbox that you can come up with. And it does get a little complicated that way maybe, but there is no one silver bullet. You’ve got to have multiple approaches.”