Magill: Time to take a wider look at Charleston's housing issues

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We are on the verge of a crisis. With the expiration of CARES Act protections against evictions, as well as paycheck safety nets, Charleston could see a wave of people displaced, particularly our most vulnerable.

Our affordable housing problem will be exacerbated.

Nearly 40 percent of the local population cannot afford housing near where they work and we see rapid gentrification displacing families. Our elected officials claim to care about the issues around housing, but in examining 2020 budgets, their words aren't backed up by tangible action and solutions.

In the fiscal year 2020 budget for the City of Charleston, the largest expenditure is Public Safety, receiving 49.6 percent ($103 million) of the budget. Compare that to the smallest expenditure, Urban and Community Development, gets 1 percent ($3 million).

At the county level, our county allocated $300,000 in fiscal year 2020 and committed $300,000 in 2021 and 2022 to Charleston County Housing Authority.

While Charleston has marked $20 million from the bonds for affordable housing, anyone who understands building costs knows that is a drop in the bucket.

The government needs to do more, the market alone has not fixed the problem. The housing crisis is growing exponentially, yet current government spending reflect a disconnect from the basic needs of its citizens.

Not only should money be reallocated to boost the housing budget, there should be a bigger emphasis on housing quality. We've been building too fast and too cheaply, leading to poor long-term investments by the city. The team who can deliver the project the fastest and at the lowest cost is often awarded the job.

The conventional system of building supports the cheapest materials that are also often the most toxic. They're usually derived from petroleum and chemical industries, backed by lobbyists and subsidies. Research shows us that toxic building materials and poor indoor air quality will affect the inhabitants of the building. When we put low-income residents in toxic buildings, we exacerbate health issues, drive up medical bills and ultimately create more financial, environmental and human health detriment.

The system also severely devalues laborers who work with toxic materials daily, often on roofs in sweltering heat, often underpaid and may be undocumented or without health insurance. Yet they have been deemed "essential workers."

The system we've created is advancing climate change, making people sick and is built on the oppression of the same people who are also the most likely to suffer the effects of a changing climate and gentrification. The Reagan-era mantra, "Greed is good," has made a roaring comeback, where we put profits and companies first and the well-being of people last. We're building cheap, toxic, failing, disposable boxes with a hearty price tag unaffordable to many.

It's natural to want quick solutions. But it is too short sighted and fragmented to continue to approach systemic affordable housing issues through the lens of a microscope. We need to zoom out and see the big picture and understand that investing in quality buildings equals long term savings, lower healthcare costs, environmental benefits, and a more empowered community.

Can we form innovative new approaches to housing through partnerships? Will we pressure elected officials to do what's right? Or will we keep our heads down and maintain the toxicity of individualism?

Charleston cannot continue to slap a tiny bandage over a systemic problem. These extraordinary times call for bold action to halt this destructive cycle.

April Magill is an architect, natural building advocate and nonprofit leader.

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