Last month, city and non-profit leaders met at a forum to discuss Charleston's growing affordable housing shortage. The usual culprits were identified as causing this crisis: higher demand, shorter supply, rising house prices, and opposition to denser developments. Partly in response to what was discussed at the forum, the City of Charleston is considering changing its policy to require more workforce housing, establishing a local community land trust, and offering lower interest loans to home owners. Another forum is scheduled for this month, along with an upcoming report further detailing the problem.
While it is good to see that non-profit and municipal leaders are engaged in addressing this crisis, it is also important to address widely held biases and beliefs in our community which makes the affordable housing crisis even more problematic. The first is the "not-in-my-backyard" mentality which surfaces whenever a specific affordable housing plan is unveiled by the community. Many Charleston residents support affordable housing as a general concept, but their tune changes when the affordable housing is planned for anywhere close to their neighborhood. Two examples are illustrative.
When the city first announced plans for construction of the Cottages at Longborough in 2008, many residents in that area were outraged. Several spoke against the planned development although the Cottages were part of the city's deal with the developer which converted Shoreview Apartments from low income housing to a higher-priced neighborhood. The units were eventually built, and none of the fears voiced by the neighborhood residents materialized. Still the opposition was notable for its breadth and outspoken nature.
A similar situation played out years later when the city announced that affordable housing would be placed on Daniel Island, a planned community which previously had been an exclusive enclave for wealthy home owners. Several Daniel Island residents organized an opposition group which at one point planned to challenge the affordable housing units in court. Despite this initial opposition the units were built, but not without pushback as occurred when the Longborough plan was unveiled.
On a more general level, opposition to higher density development within the city is one of the largest impediments to building more affordable housing. By definition, developers can make housing more affordable by concentrating more units into a smaller area. Smart developers have demolished old single family homes on single parcels, only to replace them with three or more homes in the same space. Developers do this with the goal of maximizing profit, but the same approach could be used to maximize opportunities for affordable housing.
The city would be much better served utilizing this type of approach to expanding its affordable housing stock as developers do when they try to maximize profits. The Kiawah Homes public housing development, for instance, spans several acres, yet only houses 61 units within that area. If the city were able to maximize the amount of units situated on that acreage or increase the density by constructing multi-family apartment units, many more lower income families would be served.
The affordable housing shortage will not be solved simply by relying on the goodwill of developers or the few carrots the city can provide to incentivize them. There needs to be bold action by the city which starts with maximizing the use of its existing land and continuing to stand firm against the biases of city residents who would oppose such proactive measures.