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Housing: Affordable home projects expected to start this year

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Development of affordable housing in Georgetown County should start within the next three to six months, according to Michelle Mapp, interim director of the Lowcountry Housing Trust.

The Charleston-based nonprofit provides financing for the creation and preservation of affordable housing, and is a partner in a county initiative to make housing available throughout the county to people at all income levels.

If the initiative is successful, middle income earners on Waccamaw Neck, such as teachers, young professionals and public servants, would be among the main beneficiaries.

“One thing to keep in mind is that affordable housing not only addresses low income housing; it’s providing affordable housing for our workforce,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

A number of county employees, including firefighters and paramedics, can’t afford to live in the communities they work in, especially on Waccamaw Neck, he said.

Middle income earners are a segment of the population that’s often overlooked on local and national levels when it comes to housing needs, Mapp said.

“There are a lot of federal programs out there that target households considered low-income, but not that target workforce housing,” she said.

That means workers often have to look for homes outside the communities they work in, but are then saddled with higher travel costs resulting from a longer commute. Those costs often negate what was saved on housing costs.

To be deemed affordable, housing costs should be no more than 30 percent of household income.

About 60 percent of all rental households and 40 percent of homeowners in Georgetown County pay more than that, according to a housing needs assessment recently completed by Civitas, a research and consulting firm in Charleston.

The assessment, along with an overview of the housing trust’s loan program, was presented to about 20 people, including a number of developers, at a meeting in Georgetown this week. The meeting was intended to give developers “some direction” on the county’s needs and how to get assistance if they want to help meet those needs.

The economy isn’t expected to be a roadblock to development efforts.

“That’s not to say it won’t be a challenge to bring projects to fruition,” Mapp said. “Banks are under extreme scrutiny and the loan process is harder, but we’re here to fill that gap between what financial institutions can do and what’s needed to make the project happen.”

Creating affordable housing will be valuable to economic development, Mapp said.

While economic development is often thought of in terms of bringing industry to the area and creating jobs, “if you look at most municipal budgets, residential property taxes are their greatest source of revenue.”

The trust started talking with developers after it partnered with the county last summer, but “we didn’t want to move too quickly,” Mapp said. They wanted the assessment completed first.

“Cost-burdened households” are the main housing issue in Georgetown County, according to Erich Chatham, a founding partner of Civitas, who presented the assessment to County Council earlier this month.

The median household income in the county was estimated at $47,149 in 2010, according to the assessment. The median home value was $178,700 for the same year and 57 percent of all homes were valued above $150,000.

Development of affordable rental units with two to three bedrooms is recommended in the assessment. That would help accommodate single-parent households, which account for more than 10 percent of all county households.

Those units are recommended in more urban areas with better access to services.

“Infill development” and revitalization should be a priority over expansion and new development of homes, according to the assessment.

It also recommends housing rehab remain a high priority, aiding elderly residents on fixed incomes, who account for a large portion of cost-burdened home owners.

Financial literacy education to prepare current renters for eventual home ownership and to stem the increasing number of single-parent households living in poverty is also recommended, along with down payment assistance for moderate income families.

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