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Panel: Affordable housing key to economic growth

Real Estate - Residential
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In 2016 SC Housing helped more than 26,000 families around the state achieve the dream of quality affordable housing. It resulted in a workforce impact of 4,719 jobs and created over $46 million in state and local tax revenue. Despite the solid numbers, many feel there is much more to be done.

Steve Warner of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance said there are still challenges when it comes to affordable housing in the state.

The downtown skyline offers a backdrop to tree-lined Solomon Walker Way, which cuts through the Celia Saxon Neighborhood. The Columbia Housing Authority received a $26 million grant to redevelop a 400-unit barracks style public housing and build 257 affordable housing units. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)“There are a tremendous amount of people that are cost burdened, paying more than they should,” Warner said. “Housing is infrastructure, and it’s an economic development issue. The challenges are many and complex.”

Warner led a recent panel discussion at the 2017 South Carolina Housing Policy Summit dealing with regional housing studies from around the state. The panel shared their data, and possible solutions to the ongoing housing problem.

Brian Huskey of Midlands Housing Trust Fund took part in the panel, sharing some recommendations of a recent study about housing in Columbia. He said the last comprehensive study looking at affordable housing in Columbia took place in 2007, almost a decade ago.

Huskey said he would be in favor of inclusionary zoning if it was properly supervised. Inclusionary zoning stipulates that new residential development in certain areas include some number of affordable housing units, or meet some type of alternative compliance.

Other recommendations Huskey suggested are the easing of zoning issues to allow more accessory dwellings to be built, and creating a regional housing trust fund to serve Columbia.

“We’re coming around full circle in Columbia, there seems to be a lot of dialogue,” Huskey said. “We’re trying to see what’s been successful in other parts of the state, and hopefully that will spur Columbia to move forward and work together as a group.”

Panelist Deborah McKetty of CommunityWorks in Greenville was adamant about stopping the talk and beginning to take action.

“With recent prosperity in our area, affordable housing has reached a sense of urgency,” McKetty said. “Gentrification pressure in regard to growth of downtown has resulted in displacement. Our study showed a trend of shortage in low income housing units in the marketplace, we had a 2,500-unit shortage of supply. We wanted to know how deep the problem, and the numbers shows us.”

Another issue, according to McKetty, is the downward pressure of higher wage earners.

“Because there is not enough supply in middle market income housing, it’s absorbing lower cost housing,” McKetty said.

McKetty’s goal to solve the issue has been working with the city council to take ownership, hoping they will become more engaged and participate. She is also striving to bring a broader cross section of the community to speak about the issue, including developers and employers.

“There are two major strategies to where we prioritize our efforts now,” McKetty said. “First, preserving and improving quality units that are currently affordable, and reducing land cost for future production.”

McKetty made it a point to use local dollars, rather than federal, which oftentimes come with restrictions and strings attached.

“City council was able to allocate $2 million to help support our two strategies, but they also understand this is not a one-time shot. They know this project will require annual allocation of the budget if we want to implement our strategies.”

Deputy Director of Charleston County Zoning and Planning Department Andrea Pietras said housing is just plain unaffordable in her region.

“Current wages are not enough to afford the housing in our area,” Pietras said. “Taking away the beach communities, the average housing price is $278,000. Folks would need to earn annual income of $93,000, which is 180% of the median household income in our area for 2012. Wage gap is the major issue.”

Other problems Pietras mentioned were inaccessible and inefficient public transportation, lack of variety in housing and the lack of collaborative partnerships.

“We have a lot of voices, but not one clear voice,” Pietras said.

In Columbia, Huskey said there is a movement from state government and the legislature to increase the community economic tax credit in the state from $1 million to $5 million. According to Huskey, being able to leverage those investments in private money is a powerful tool.

“There’s pressure in Columbia. With the presence of a large university, lots of incentives are given to private developers in student housing, and there’s a lot of energy around that,” Huskey said. “With inclusionary zoning and funding incentive tools, we can gain that same energy to make people want to do things, rather than force them.”

Reach Travis Boland at 803-726-7543.

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