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Feeling The Pain Of Unaffordable Housing

By Barney Blakeney

I got the phone message from a lady at William Enston Homes in downtown Charleston a couple of weeks ago. She was expressing frustration at the Charleston Housing authority’s announcement that some residents would be moved out of their apartments as they are renovated. She felt the Charleston Housing Authority, which owns the apartments gave no guarantees residents subsequently could move back. That’s a concern which is all too common among low and moderate income people in our region.

I guess it’s somewhat easy for those of us who are in our various comfort zones to not feel compassion for others feeling that kind of frustration. Sure, we mouth the words “I feel your pain” and we demonstrate all the actions that go along with those words. But do we really feel that pain? When I got the message from that lady, I kind of took it with a grain of salt. It didn’t go down hard.

You see, that lady lives in the part of the complex that was created by the city’s $10 million affordable housing bond approved in 2001. That money created 64 units of housing including, I think, 16 at Enston Homes. I remember former Charleston City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell fighting hard for that referendum. It took a few years to push through.

Seventeen years ago, Charleston was beginning to realize the affordable housing crunch so many feel today. The referendum became a political and financial juggling act – much as the need for affordable housing is today. When I hear the terms affordable housing or workforce housing, I think about what that really means – housing for people with different income levels.

I see a lot of street people who don’t know the difference between affordable and workforce housing. For a lot of people, housing is just about a roof and a bed. I remember years ago running into a young woman and her daughter who were staying at ‘the shelter’. I can’t remember how we hooked up. Maybe it was around the time I was doing domestic abuse stories.

She wasn’t a Charleston native and I can’t remember how she got here. But we had met previously and I again ran into her and her daughter one rainy Sunday morning at White Point Garden on “The Battery”. In those days, residents of the shelter weren’t allowed to stay there during daytime hours.

They had to find someplace, anyplace, to go until bedtime at night. Sunday mornings used to be a time for me to cool out. I’d roll back the sunroof on the old Lincoln and just drive. The canopy of trees over highways on Johns Island while blasting Stanly Clark’s and George Duke’s ‘Clark/Duke Project’ always was refreshing. I figured a ride around the islands beat sitting in the rain, so I invited that lady and her daughter to go with me. In exchange, she offered to use her food stamps to buy and cook Sunday dinner. It was a memorable experience.

Sometime later I saw them again. They were living in an apartment upstairs over the old Moulin Rouge. The apartment was dark, sparsely lit, and I don’t remember seeing a lot of furniture. But they were at a place where they could rest. They didn’t have to sit in the rain or under a tree until time to go back to the shelter.

I think I know a little about housing – affordable, workforce and no housing – I’ve experienced all of the above. No matter how well-meaning or compassionate, it’s hard for those us at varying levels of comfort to fully understand the painful reality of uncertain housing. The lady who wrote the message said she read a story I wrote quoting a councilman who “nonchalantly” remarked that some residents displaced by renovations to housing authority properties may not be able to come back. To her, that expressed a disturbing level of insensitivity, she said.

I knew I had to focus on that lady’s concerns when I saw an old schoolmate at the grocery store the other day. The sister has lived in Wraggsborough Homes ever since I can remember. She told me she soon would be moving to North Charleston. Her rent in the projects had become unaffordable, she said. How you do that?! How does rent in public housing become unaffordable?

According to my man realtor Doug Holmes of Keller Williams Realtor, who provides monthly updates on home sales in the Tri-county region, six homes on the peninsula were under contract the week of July 20-26 at prices ranging from $425,000-$2.3 million with a median price just over $600,000. In North Charleston 27 homes that week were under contract with prices ranging from $35,000-$289,000.

So we know housing costs. And for those who can afford the cost, housing can be affordable. But how does low income public housing become unaffordable?

Do we really feel that pain?

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