One reason why Charleston’s affordable housing problem has remained so severe, despite decades of attention and action, is because some of the victories — some efforts to build new housing to rent or sell to the city’s working-class residents — have been temporary ones.
Many affordable housing complexes have been financed through arrangements that only required rents to be subsidized and kept at lower price points for a certain number of years, after which the owner could sell or rent them at market rates. Clearly, homes built under such deals were valuable inasmuch as they helped address the needs of their day, but they did not guarantee that they would meet residents’ affordable housing needs in the decades to come.
That’s why Charleston officials held a celebration Tuesday at North Central Apartments at 1054 King St., one of the complexes built by the Humanities Foundation under such a deal more than a decade ago.
What Mayor John Tecklenburg and City Councilman celebrating Robert Mitchell were not the expiration of rental subsides and the arrival of pricier, market-rate rents. They were celebrating their permanent extension, as the Charleston Redevelopment Corporation, through its Palmetto Land Trust program, purchased the handsome, three-story brick complex. It sold for $5 million, including $1.5 million contributed by the city from its share of the Charleston Place loan repayment, and the trust will work to ensure the apartments always remain affordable.
The complex includes 36 units built for residents at least 55 years old and on fixed incomes; Its rents were set to be affordable for those with incomes around 60% of the average median income, about $34,000 for a family of one or $39,000 for a family of two. North Central was built in an ideal location, across from a grocery store, a drug store, a library and other businesses and services. When the project broke ground in 2003, then-Mayor Joe Riley celebrated how the new complex would create more of a gathering place in this part of the city.
The North Central Apartments purchase ranks among the first big moves by the Palmetto Community Land Trust, which was created just a few years ago with help from the city, the Charleston Housing Authority and the Historic Charleston Foundation. The new nonprofit not only has the flexibility to buy existing units as well as to build new units on vacant land, but it also can qualify for grants that otherwise wouldn’t be available to the city. “We own the dirt,” says Geona Shaw Johnson, who directs the city’s Housing and Community Development Department and also serves as the trust’s vice president. “The improved product or home belongs to the end buyer, but that dirt stays in the trust for perpetuity.”
The trust’s first major accomplishment was its purchase of Sea Island Apartments, a 48-unit affordable complex on Johns Island, and the trust already owns more than 100 other units, including some new affordable homes built in the city’s Rosemont and Ashleyville-Maryville neighborhoods.
The trust’s web site recaps the need: The percentage of renters who spend a majority of their income on rent doubled from 24% in the 1960s to almost 48% in 2016, and anyone vaguely familiar with the local real estate market knows home prices have risen far faster than workers’ wages for many years. The growing gap between what workers can afford and what the market is providing is widely considered one of the greatest challenges to the Charleston region’s future prosperity.
We encourage banks, nonprofits and others to continue to support the Charleston Redevelopment Corporation’s trust program, because our lack of affordable housing isn’t just a problem for the least wealthy among us. It’s a problem for all of us.