By Christina Lee Knauss
Nearly every day of the week, the phone rings in Alisa Mosley’s Columbia office. On the other end is someone looking for help finding an affordable place to live.
Mosley’s job as executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition of South Carolina makes her seem like the logical person to call for someone in need, but all she can do is offer advice on where to look. The calls, however, never stop coming.
“Our group does policy and advocacy work, but I get calls every day from people looking for housing and reaching out to us trying to find it. It’s constant,” Mosley said. “It’s a constant problem in this state. I get calls from people in cities. There’s a huge problem in rural areas. I also get calls from seniors looking for housing, especially along the coast where wealthier retirees can often afford housing and those on a fixed income can’t. The need out there is just so much greater than the number of units available in this state.”
Mosley and her organization are on the front lines of an ongoing fight to get more access to affordable housing for people across South Carolina. It’s a battle that’s not unique to the state. Nationwide, no state has enough affordable rental housing for the lowest income renters, and the situation is not much better for those with slightly higher incomes, according to statistics compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Thousands in South Carolina were already struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, and the economic downturn caused by the pandemic is likely going to make the problem worse. Many people who were already struggling to afford rent when they were working have lost jobs, face eviction, and will have an even harder time finding an affordable and safe place to live.
Out of Reach, a report released this month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, shows just how big the problem is in South Carolina. The report, which relies on statistics compiled in 2018 and 2019, shows an issue brewing well before the pandemic struck.
According to the report, the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in South Carolina is $900. In order to afford this level of rent plus utilities, without spending more than 30 percent of its income on housing, a household would have to bring in $2,999 monthly, or about $35,984 annually. Factor in a 40-hour work week for a year, and that means the average renter would need to make $17.30 an hour to afford a basic apartment.
The problem? The average minimum wage in South Carolina is $7.25 and the average hourly wage for renters statewide is $13.52. A renter making minimum wage would have to work 95 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental home, and 82 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom.
Breaking it down even further, an average renter would need to work 2.4 full-time jobs at minimum wage to afford the two-bedroom, and two full-time jobs to afford the one-bedroom.
According to the report, the Columbia metropolitan area is the fifth most expensive area in the state related to housing wage, with an average hourly wage of $17.90 needed to afford the most basic two-bedroom residence.
Charleston/North Charleston is the most expensive, with a housing wage of $22.67, followed by York County ($20.44), Beaufort County ($19.77) and Myrtle Beach/North Myrtle Beach and Conway ($19.17).
In an employment market already crippled by the pandemic, those numbers might seem insurmountable. While a rise in wages for low-income workers could help address the issue, other new legislation and programs in the works may offer some solutions.
A bill passed by the state legislature and approved by Gov. Henry McMaster in May will offer some help to those struggling to find affordable housing, according to Renaye Long, communications and outreach director for the South Carolina State Housing and Development Authority. The legislation creates a matching state tax credit for low-income housing that will be available to South Carolina taxpayers who are also eligible for federal low-income housing tax credits.
“The state law that passed in May will help to decrease some of the volume of people in need,” Long said.
The lack of affordable housing is also being addressed by community activist groups around the state. Leaders of those groups cite a lack of adequate housing as being at the foundation of a myriad of community problems ranging from homelessness and lack of access to health care to community violence. Faith-based community organizations in Columbia and Charleston are urging local leaders to consider establishing an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a program that provides financial incentives for developers to build more affordable housing in a community.
In Columbia, Midlands Organized Response for Equity (MORE) and Justice draws members from more than 30 diverse religious congregations around the Midlands who meet regularly with each other and with local officials to address the problems of poverty and the need for access to health care and affordable housing.
Kalli Ball, interim lead organizer for MORE Justice, said affordable housing has been one of the group’s core focus issues since the fall of 2018. Members have been meeting first in person and, more recently, virtually with members of Richland County Council, Columbia City Council and local organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Homeless No More to address the issue in the Midlands.
While the COVID-19 situation has made organizing more challenging, Ball said MORE Justice’s goal is to have an Affordable Housing Trust Fund set up for residents in the Midlands in about 18 months.
“We’re currently working on a timeline to get a trust fund established and funded,” Ball said. “Access to housing has been and will continue to be one of the central issues we address.”