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Charleston faces low-income housing crisis

Charleston needs more housing for low- to moderate-income residents. A lot more.
“We only serve about a third to at most 40 percent of income-eligible families,” said Don Cameron, CEO and president of the Charleston Housing Authority, which oversees just over 1,400 public housing units.
That’s a pretty good percentage compared to other cities this size. But it means that more than half of the Charleston residents who need help to afford a home or apartment — specifically, those who make 80 percent or less of the area median income — aren’t getting that assistance.
That’s a lot of people. Eighty percent of the median income is about $26,000 for an individual or about $42,000 for a family. In other words, every full-time minimum-wage worker qualifies. So do families of many teachers, police officers and other public service jobs.
Right now, there’s only room for the most desperate households in public residences.
“Most of the people we serve make 30 to 50 percent of the area median income,” said Mr. Cameron. They work at restaurants, hotels and school cafeterias. They have hourly jobs, mostly at minimum wage. Many can’t get enough hours to be considered full time.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a good fix to build traditional public housing in large developments that segregate low-income residents from the rest of the city population. That approach hasn’t always worked in the past, and it’s vulnerable to federal funding shortages.
Rather, a better approach aims to create mixed-income, mixed-use communities that offer greater social and job opportunities for residents.
To get a little more flexibility — and a more reliable funding stream — the Charleston Housing Authority plans to start running its own properties soon rather than relying on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Technically the city Housing Authority already owns the properties. The main difference in the new plan would be tying units to Section 8 vouchers rather than funding them through the uncertain process of congressional appropriations. Charleston’s Housing Authority hasn’t been fully funded since 2012, for example.
Section 8 doesn’t have a stellar track record. Lots of private developments won’t take the vouchers, and the cap on their value means the lowest income residents still can’t afford some market-rate rents. And residents of public housing will have to rely on the vouchers to find their own housing while needed renovations are completed at several of the city’s units.
That’s going to be a challenge. But it’s a necessity. Many of the downtown properties flood severely on a regular basis, and the problem is likely to get worse in the next few decades as sea levels continue to rise. Putting off upgrades would be risky and costly.
We’re also going to need to build more units — specifically near jobs — to address affordability.
To that end, Charleston voters approved the use of $20 million in bonds to help build affordable housing for a variety of income levels. A new low-income housing development opened downtown last May. At least 60 units are planned for a property near the foot of the old Cooper River bridges.
That’s progress. More will be needed.
Housing affects a lot of other concerns in the region like traffic and parking. Helping people live near jobs keeps congestion at bay and builds stronger, healthier communities. Low- and moderate-income housing is a key piece of that puzzle.

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A message from our President/Chief Executive Officer:

The Housing Authority of the City of Charleston was born of action on December 18, 1934 by a vote of the Charleston City Council. However, the actual permission for such a "creation" came via statute in the South Carolina General Assembly in March of 1934.

We have come a long way in our society, our City and our personal relationships. Nevertheless, the need for Public housing still exists today. We have so much more to do before we can truly say, the job is done.

Donald J. Cameron
President/Chief Executive Officer
Housing Authority of the City of Charleston