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City too busy to consider "affordable housing' applications

Warwick Jones, Editor

For those of us who own our homes and which are in good condition, housing is not an issue. But for those who don't or who have homes desperately needing repair, it is. And there are a lot of people in Charleston who would like to own a home but can't afford it, or own homes that need urgent repair. Most of these people are hard working but are victim of the generally low wages and salaries in South Carolina, and the rising trend of real estate values in Charleston. To buy a home or to renovate, these folk need help. They can seek special loans from lending institutions, or assistance from non-profit organizations. Or they can apply through the City's "affordable housing" program. Or can they?

Councilmember Lewis questions Mayor
The Mayor's reaction to a question by Councilmember Lewis at the last Council meeting was quite a surprise. Mr. Lewis has been a champion of "affordable housing" and questioned the Mayor as to why a meeting had not been called for over 3 months of the Redevelopment and Preservation Commission (RPC). The RPC plays an integral role in approving funds for "affordable housing", either directly or for non-profits. He had been told that Capital Projects which now oversees housing funding had been too busy with other matters. The Mayor "brushed off" the council member's question with the confirmation that the department had truly been busy!

Financing for housing shifted to Capital Projects
This seeming indifference prompted us to meet with Councilmember Lewis to get his side of the story. It goes like this. There have been changes in the administration relating to financing and housing. Amongst other things, approval for Housing and Community Development funding was placed with Capital Projects which is a department within the Budget and Management Division. Pat Crawford was and is the head of the Housing Division and does a good job, in fact, an excellent job, Councilmember Lewis states. She has held her position for 26 years. It was the decision of the Mayor to change the funding approval process and presumably it was made to bring efficiency to the Administration. But as Councimemebr Lewis exclaims, Pat Crawford was also very busy but she made the time, even if it were late in the evening, to deal with the affairs of "affordable housing".

The City Housing Department received about $2.3 million this year from HUD and much still remains to be distributed. And not only are funds available, there are deserving applicants for these funds. It seems wrong to deprive these applicants because staff of Capital Projects are too busy.

It also seems wrong for the Mayor to be dismissive!

We took a look at the City's web site to try and get a fuller picture of its housing programs. There are a lot of words and it is hard work to get comprehension. We found nothing about any changes in the approval or budgeting process. Nor did we find much about the RPC. There was a reference to it as follows… Programs… "co-ordinated by the Department of Housing and Community Development are governed by the RPC and the Homeownership Initiation Council (HIC)." There is no mention as to the difference in the roles that each entity plays in "governing" the programs.

The Mayor appoints members to the Commission, through appointments are subject to Council approval. The members of the RPC are Capers Barr, Francis Mack, Rev R.A. Dungee, Eugene Cross, Rev J Gallant, Jerome Clements and James Lewis. We do not have the names of the members of the HIC.

Where has the money gone?
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Councilmember Lewis harbors some bitterness towards the city's "affordable housing" initiatives. Most of the money distributed has come from HUD. Yet the City made a $10 million bond issue a few years ago and he wonders where these funds have gone or indeed where they are? He has seen no evidence that they have gone for "affordable housing".

An opportunity lost
Councilmember Lewis feels the City has lost an opportunity of serving its less affluent citizens, particularly African Americans who live in the Renewal Communities that stretch from Calhoun Street to North Charleston. Because of escalating land values, it has grown increasingly difficult to provide "affordable housing". If the proceeds of the Bond issue had been used for acquisition immediately, so many more people could have been accommodated. Now with property vales so much higher, few are able to finance a purchase.

There is a difference between "affordable housing" and subsidized housing. In the former, a buyer is assisted in his or her purchase. This may be by means of a cash subsidy, payable to the buyer or the non profit provider, by a subsidized interest rate, or a forgivable loan for closing costs. It may be a mixture of these things. But the buyer still has to finance a significant part of the purchase. And in the final analysis, his or her monthly payments cannot exceed a specific ratio of family income.

Why is the City's housing more expensive?
Councilman Lewis pointed out the affordable housing project at Peeckson's Court. This was a joint project between the City and the Humanities Foundation. He said that monthly repayments for buyers would amount generally to $800. This was too much for most of his constituents. He also pointed to a project across the road that was far more affordable and wondered out loud how the non-profit, the Episcopal Diocese Community Housing Development Organization, could provide housing that was similar in nature and size but for a much lower cost.

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