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"Affordable Housing" - some views on architecture

George Holt
7 Charles Street.

Sir,
Thank you for the excellent review of the affordable housing situation in the city. I agree with you that the term " affordable " is relative but would like to share some additional thoughts regarding this definition. My interest in this subject is keen as I have volunteered to design a small project on the Eastside for the purpose of selling affordable units to first-time home buyers . My thoughts or musings on the subject may be of interest to others since they resulted from my effort to define " affordable housing " in the broader sense before beginning the design process.

My conclusions

Cheaply constructed housing is a false economy. By cheap I do not mean economical but rather the conscious choice at inception of a project to design and provide a product that will require considerable maintenance in its lifetime, to retain its initial appearance and function. When selling a house to a first-time buyer of modest means, the long-term maintenance needs of the structure should be taken into account so that we aren't in effect creating slums for the future.

Affordable housing has to respect the architectural standards of the city or area in which it is located. Architecture can be pleasing without costing more than architecture that is not pleasing. The illusion that "good" architecture costs more than "bad" architecture is a concept that was initiated by "modern" architects. There is no basis in history for this assumption and some of our most delightful buildings in Charleston were in fact built by and for the use of persons of limited means. I therefore have to disagree with you on relaxing BAR standards for areas like Columbus and Line streets. Please understand that I do not hold you responsible for this belief however, since this concept of " good " architecture having to be expensive is just one of the many widely accepted bad ideas "modern" architects have to answer for.

Size and density have a direct impact on the cost of affordable housing. Again I must use history as a guide and more particularly the history of our beautiful city. In the past, persons of limited means lived in smaller dwellings. Obviously the reason for this was that a smaller house costs less to build and to maintain. A cleverly designed small space can be as functional as a much larger space but cost less to build and be consequently, more affordable. Also less land was wasted because land costs money. The more dwellings that share the cost of the land, the less each individual has to pay for his or her share.

I'm not quite certain as to when the idea that people living in close proximity to one another in an urban environment like Charleston, was something to be avoided. Until the middle of the 20th century about 70,000 people of all social classes lived on the Peninsula. Having spoken to folks who lived downtown then, I hear them describe a place where life was interesting and enjoyable and people of all backgrounds came into contact with one another in a more or less agreeable fashion. I've never heard anyone say that Charleston was too crowded back then and that a lower residential density would have made the city a better place to live.

The idea that a large house on a large lot works best for everybody in the city is another " modern" contrivance that disregards the facts of our history in Charleston. Many elements of zoning regulations work against the possibility of creating affordable places to live in our cities and thankfully Charleston has begun to address some of these irregularities in the last few years. Hopefully additional steps in this area will be taken as I'm afraid that Charleston is turning into a city for only the very rich, the very poor, college students and tourists .as the middle class can only find housing in the suburbs.

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