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On Laurel Island, affordable housing with no expiration

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As the Laurel Island development moves forward, the project’s focus on affordable housing is a detail that has gotten overshadowed in the approval process, developer Robert Clement said.

Upon completion of the planned unit development, 10% of the overall 4,260 rentable residential units will be affordable housing in perpetuity for Charleston’s working class. Geona Shaw Johnson, director of Charleston Housing & Community Development, said a private-sector developer has never offered rental units of this kind to the city before. 

In addition to the permanent housing, another 10% of units will be affordable for 10 years upon being leased. The planned unit development proposal also includes 276,500 square feet of retail, 2.2 million square feet of office space, 400 hotel rooms and 39.2 acres of usable green space. 
“It’s phenomenal, and I’m hoping that other private sectors will follow because what we have learned and what we understand is that private sectors develop well, and they have the ability to produce a lot faster,” Johnson said.

While Charleston has long offered provided federal funding for permanent affordable housing, it is primarily focused on the low-income residents. The different with the Laurel Island homes are that they will serve downtown Charleston’s workforce, including nurses, teachers, police officers and hospitality workers who often live paycheck to paycheck but make too much money to qualify for low-income housing.

Currently, the downtown Charleston median income is $81,000, for a family of four, and those who qualify for the workforce housing must make 75-85% of it, Johnson said. For an individual, the salary would be approximately $45,000 a year.

“Affordable housing is a mammoth umbrella and what we were trying to target was a group of people who are employed in a major way in downtown Charleston but are completely missed under the system,” Clement said. 

The president of Clement Development Inc. has been with the Laurel Island project since its inception seven years ago and also serves as chairman of the Mayors’ Commission on Homelessness and Affordable Housing. Since he first joined the organization, Clement has traveled to see the impact of homelessness and to understand what other cities are doing to fix their problems. 

“What we discovered quickly is we were doing well with the poorest of the poor, who are already in the system, but we were missing this sector of workforce housing,” he said. “What happened during this pandemic was the people living paycheck to paycheck lost that paycheck and are one step away from losing their apartment.”

Imagining the mental anguish of a person who thinks they’re going to lose their apartment, Clement said, makes this issue “not just a money thing,” but an issue of critical importance to the community as a whole. 

Creating more workforce housing in Charleston was essential, but Clement and Johnson both had to dive into what that would entail. The developer said that while the city had several initiatives, similar to other parts of the country, they always had the same limitation: The housing eventually expired.

“When the 25 or 30 years are up, Geona and I realized all that did was postpone the fire drill,” Clement said. 

At the end of these lease-terms, affordable housing reverts to market rent. Clement said this is “catastrophic” because it usually raises units to a price point that less affluent residents can’t afford.

A person shouldn’t pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs, whether renting or purchasing, Johnson said, and those who do, generally end up cost- or house-burdened. 

To eliminate the upheaval, Clement and Johnson changed the conversation surrounding Laurel Island housing from fixed-years to in-perpetuity. 

When an outcry asked for more housing arose, Clement added another 10% for 10 years to the tally, negotiated to start at the time the unit is leased. This section of housing has been much of the public focus in meetings, but the developer wants to flip the focus to the fact that no other private company has offered permanent affordable housing. 

Clement wants to do more, and thinks he is providing more than he originally promised, but he said at a point it becomes “brutally expensive” to maintain a profit if he were to add even more for-market units and rent them at half the cost.

“You’re eating half of the cost of the building to make it work,” he said. Then as the average median income stays the same, and the market goes up, that gap grows even bigger. 

Through his work with the Mayors’ Commission, Clement has seen the workforce move farther and farther away from Downtown Charleston. They are forced to buy a car for their commute and are leaving families earlier in the day and getting back later at night, he said.

“If we can put them somewhere where they can ride a bike or walk to work, it cuts down on traffic piling into downtown, and we’ve also eliminated their need to own a car… Cut living expenses dramatically increases a person’s way of live. Plus, if they live where they work, there’s a lot less chance for absentees,” Clement said. 

Charleston’s Planning Commission voted Oct. 27 to establish basic zoning for the PUD at Laurel Island, the 196.1-acre property above Morrison Drive that encompasses two former landfills. But there is still much groundwork to be done, including infrastructure and development agreements with Charleston and North Charleston’s water systems, sewer and electric companies.

Phase I construction of the bridge on Cool Blow Street is still at least three years out, Clement said, but utilities could be in place sometime next year, with ground breaking at the very end of 2021 or early 2022 for the buildings.

Johnson hopes this plan serves a benchmark for other developers and sparks a trend in the community.

“I believe the city of Charleston has prided itself on diversity of folks at a diversity of income and that’s what makes us great,” she said. “Being able to ‘afford’ a home is relevant term. The strength in our community is being able to provide affordable housing in our community that’s safe, decent and affordable.”

Reach Teri Errico Griffis at 843-849-3144.

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