City and state legislators push plans to bolster affordable housing in Charleston 

Fiscal Sense and Rising Rents

click to enlarge Sen. Marlon Kimpson (right) says affordable housing has become a crisis in S.C.

Dustin Waters

Sen. Marlon Kimpson (right) says affordable housing has become a crisis in S.C.

There are a few longstanding rules of thumb when it comes to finances. Some are rooted in fiscal common sense — "Buy low. Sell high." Some are the result of marketing campaigns — "You should spend two months salary on an engagement ring." And others are a bit more subjective — "Don't spend more than 30 percent of your income on rent." For a majority of Charleston County residents, this is the one rule that they just can't follow.

U.S. Census data estimates that approximately 55 percent of renters living in Charleston County spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This number puts Charleston ahead of Richland and Greenville counties, as well as Raleigh, Atlanta, and New York City. Of course, like all anecdotal advice, the 30-percent rule doesn't apply to everyone.

For those earning well above average, spending 30 percent on rent can still leave plenty of money to go toward food, utilities, and whatever else they choose to buy. But for those on the other end of the spectrum, balancing between housing costs and other necessities can prove crippling.

Compared to those earning more than $50,000 a year, renters bringing home less than $20,000 per year are almost twice as likely to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing in Charleston County. With local and state leaders labeling the current lack of sufficient affordable housing as a crisis, several plans have emerged to ensure that those on the cusp of falling behind have a few more options when it comes to keeping a roof over their heads.

Charleston's Planning Commission was two hours deep into a debate on affordable housing last week when board members began to realize that this wouldn't be an issue easily settled that evening. The matter in question was a proposed amendment to the city's Mixed-Use Workforce Housing zoning offered for those who wish to build in the city's urban core. Currently, developers who opt in to the zoning designation are allowed to build as many residential units as possible and catch a break when it comes to required parking spaces.

For example, a project planned for 511 Meeting St. was originally zoned for a maximum of 26.4 residential units per acre. Under this workforce housing zoning, developers were allowed to plan for almost 200 units. When it comes to parking, a hypothetical 100-unit development would only be required to accommodate 90 spaces compared to 150. Keep in mind that according to the city's Planning Department, a garage parking space typically costs a developer $20,000-$35,000 per spot.

So clearly there are some incentives for those hoping to take advantage of the optional zoning — but there are also some requirements that can cut into profit. Namely, those opting into this specific zoning are required to set aside 15 percent of available units as workforce housing for at least 10 years, which means below market-rate rents for those who qualify. The city of Charleston considers those earning 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) or less as viable candidates for reduced-rate apartments.

The matter of contention brought before city leaders is whether to amend the current requirements for workforce housing under this zoning option to increase workforce unit requirements from 15 to 20 percent of available units and require these rental rates to remain in place for 25 years, rather than 10. Developers would be given the option of paying a fee in lieu or donating construction-ready land in place of the required number of workforce units — a proposal that has drawn criticism from local developers questioning its fairness.

Under the proposed changes, developers opting into this zoning plan would be asked to pay $5.10 for every square foot of required workforce units they decided not to include in the development. Luther Cochrane, advisor to Evening Post Industries which owns the Post and Courier, addressed Charleston's Planning Commission last Wednesday on behalf of a coalition of developers hoping that the proposed changes could be tweaked to bring the fee-in-lieu rate to around $2 per square foot.

"We support affordable housing. We always have. We have a difference of opinion with respect to this specific ordinance about whether it does the job," said Cochrane. "The conclusion we've reached is this ordinance could have an adverse market effect. We call it an unintended market consequence. It would place so many restrictions on development that instead of getting more housing and more affordable housing, we will have less of both."

Considering the fee-in-lieu option as currently presented by the city, the Evening Post Industries' Courier Square development set for 465 Meeting St. would be given the option to provide 34 workforce units or pay a fee in lieu for workforce housing not provided, which would equal out to more than $1 million in fees to the city's proposed affordable/workforce housing account. Under the proposed ordinance that would establish this account, all money gathered would go toward creating or improving low-income housing in the city.

Developers addressing the Planning Commission last week proposed a 15-percent, 15-year requirement on workforce housing under the amended ordinance and suggested that a greatly reduced fee-in-lieu option would be more fair for those hoping to build. The development coalition's argument behind the lower fee-in-lieu and donated land buyouts is that these options would more likely lead to permanent affordable or workforce housing for the city rather than a requirement for workforce housing that would pass after the suggested 25-year requirement. Of course, as city staff are quick to point out, all of these proposed requirements are optional.

"In essence, there are other states that have inclusionary zoning laws. That means that within those states there are municipalities that are enabled to require affordability in a project by law," said city planner Jacob Lindsey. "The state of South Carolina does not presently have inclusionary zoning requirements or enabling statutes. We as a city cannot force a developer to build affordable units into a project."

As far as South Carolina is concerned, some state leaders are hoping to change that. State Sen. Marlon Kimpson has presented a bill that would permit counties and municipalities to require new developments to include at least 25 percent of units to qualify as affordable housing or pay an in-lieu fee as determined by local legislators. Incentives offered to developers under the proposed plan include density and tax adjustments.

"It assures that there will be availability for people who earn a working-class wage. This is not Section 8 or public housing. These people will have to have more than a minimum-wage job almost to afford the mortgage, but what we're talking about is people earning $30,000-45,000, targeting those people so they can be able to afford a home on the peninsula or in Charleston County," says Kimpson. "The average sales price of a home in Charleston County has now surpassed $450,000, and it's not just Charleston County. The average sales price statewide of a home is over $230,000, so we are at a crisis. It's incumbent upon the General Assembly to enact this legislation so that city and county councils have a tool in the tool box."



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