Last month, among all the talk of bike lanes and the future of Sgt. Jasper, Charleston City Council entered into a conversation that touched on the true limit of their powers regarding the creation of affordable housing. Councilman Keith Waring had proposed an amendment to the zoning of the Sgt. Jasper site that would potentially lead to the creation of 24 affordable units when the area is redeveloped. The members of council acknowledged that an added two dozen units wouldn't go far in solving the peninsula's affordability issues, but it was better than nothing — which is exactly what City Council has the power to require.
"All affordable housing in the city is something a developer must opt into under our interpretation of state practices," city planner Jacob Lindsey reminded council as frustration seemed to wash over their faces.
Waring said that if state law needed to be changed to resolve this issue then that's what Charleston's leaders needed to encourage. Councilman James Lewis remarked that as Charleston continues to rake in international accolades as one of the top cities in the nation — and in the world by some accounts — the workers who keep Charleston clean and operational are being priced out. Councilman Robert Mitchell added that he was tired of the "lip service" paid to the city's affordability crisis. Their comments were met by applause from the crowd. But what can Charleston's leaders do to ensure that those who staff the city's hotels, kitchens, and minimum-wage positions still have a place in the city they helped build into a premier destination?
Throughout the Charleston area, monthly rental rates increased by almost 31 percent between 2010-2015, with average rent now standing at around $1,065 per month, according to the Charleston Apartment Index. According to that report, vacancy rates are expected to rise over the next year and rent growth will slow as new units come online. But in the meantime, it is important to consider just who can afford to live in Charleston.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition collects data from counties all across the country to examine who's earning what and how much that will get them as far as housing is concerned. According to the NLIHC database, the average renter in Charleston County earns about $12.73 per hour. By their calculations, a person pulling in these wages can comfortably afford to pay $662 a month on rent.
For someone earning minimum wage, it's a different story. Those low-income workers can only afford to pay $377 per month before expenses begin to cut into money that would otherwise go to food and health care costs. This means that in order to afford fair market rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Charleston County, a person earning minimum wage would need to work 82 hours a week — a strong case for having an employed roommate who doesn't mind sharing space if ever there was one. For Councilman Lewis, it's numbers like these that make him uncertain as to how Charleston's workforce can afford to remain in the area.
"I'm sure that if you look at state statute, the state of South Carolina does not have rent control like a lot of major cities do. We don't have rent control, so state legislature controls the rent. There's nothing City Council can do," says Lewis. "All we can do is try to work with developers when they are developing these large tracts of properties throughout the city of Charleston. Federal monies have dried up. Our community development office used to get a lot of community development funds and housing funds, but that money has just dried up. We try to do the best that we can, and that's all we can do."
As a HUD-certified housing counselor and chair of the city's Community Development Committee, Councilman Mitchell says that rent has become a big business in Charleston, much to the peril of those who work in the local hospitality industry. For Mitchell, the city's lack of affordable housing ties into other problems affecting Charleston. While workers are pushed out of downtown to find a place to live, they must still commute onto the peninsula for work — worsening the area's traffic congestion.
"When someone works in a hotel, what are they making? Because the money needed to be able to afford these rents here, when you get a one-bedroom apartment, somebody might want $1,200 for it. Most of the housing that's being built by developers, they're going with the HUD AMI, which is the area median income. You may start with 80 percent of the AMI, which means you're going to start at $800 on up or more," says Mitchell. "Who's going to be able to afford that?"
According to Mitchell, the key focus for city leaders now is working to establish more private-public partnerships that will create more affordable housing on the peninsula. Often, he finds himself talking with developers looking to construct on the peninsula. Mitchell tells them he needs something to bring back to his community in the form of affordable units, but that's not always a guarantee that these units will last.
"They might give me three or four units, which is not a lot, but it's something. But I cannot make them do it," he says.
Once a new project is completed and those affordable units are in place, Mitchell says the real challenge he faces is keeping them affordable for the forseeable future.
"Those units may stay affordable for years before they go back to market rent because that's something developers don't have to do," adds Mitchell. "That's something they are doing because I went to them, and I asked for them to try and give me something so that some people can afford to live in those complexes."