By Jason Sakran
As the newly elected Charleston City Council Member representing District 3, the past four months have been exciting, eye-opening, reaffirming and somewhat disappointing. A recent example that embodies these emotions can best be illustrated by my recent attempt to help small business owners here in Charleston in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
On Monday March 16, in an effort to get ahead of the pending economic disaster, I met with the CEO of the LDC which is a local non-profit lending institution. The LDC has helped 100’s of small business owners and has a track record of success amongst African American borrowers. As a loan recipient for my small business in Mount Pleasant, I was eager to get them involved.
I asked the CEO whether they would support using $4 million that was set aside for future affordable housing projects and instead be used to support a small business crisis loan fund. At the time of my request, there were no projects connected with the $4 million and no agreements were signed with any developers or builders. My proposal was not a give away to small business owners. It was a loan fund and when they paid back their loan, the funds were to be used to pay for future affordable housing projects.
The proposal’s intent was to support women and minority owned businesses and we would require the business owner to use 25% of the loan to hire and/or retain low wage hourly workers. I knew the economic impact that COVID-19 would have on our community and the point of the fund was to ensure small business owners and their employees had the resources available to weather this storm.
The LDC agreed to consider my proposal and I immediately contacted the Mayor’s Chief of Staff to get some feedback and arrange for an informal meeting between City staff and a few Council Members. On Wednesday March 18, three other Council Members, City staff and myself met to discuss the plan. We were still at a point where we were trying to determine if this was even feasible. The three Council Members who attended this meeting had expressed an interest in doing something positive for small business owners and that was the reason they were invited to this particular meeting.
The following day, I immediately emailed every City Council Member with the draft proposal and asked for input, comments and feedback. For the record, I heard back from several Council members who provided their opinion and feedback, In my opinion, this was the time to provide input and share concerns. That evening, I personally met with Council Member Waring at his office to gather his input and I would have personally met with any Council Member who expressed an interest. At this point, the “proposal” was just 2 days old. The plan was to bring the item to the next City Council meeting for vote which was Tuesday March 24. Before Tuesday’s Council Meeting, I had heard that a few Council Members were concerned about the process and felt excluded. This was news to me because I genuinely attempted to include all members.
At the Council Meeting, we voted to defer the item and send it back to the Community Development Committee where it has been since March 26. The point of this commentary is to demonstrate that nothing intentional was done and that in a crisis, it’s critical that leadership acts quickly, decisively and focuses on results.
I did not have faith that the Federal SBA disaster loan program would get money to business owners in a timely fashion which is why I pushed the proposal so fervently and was acting so urgently. I was correct. On Tuesday April 14, the Small Business Administration announced they loaned out all $350B in COVID-19 relief funds. Per the SBA website, the average loan was $239,000. Based on the funding criteria and quick math, this means the average SBA award applicant was generating well over $3 million annually. A large majority of small businesses in Charleston do not generate anywhere near $3 million annually so this loan fund did not help the small business owners I was trying to target here in Charleston. In fact as it stands today, roughly 70% of local small businesses will not see the financial relief they need and some will close their doors forever. This will have a negative impact on our tax revenues and unnecessarily leave people unemployed.
Some suggested I was trying to deplete some of the affordable housing fund. If the short term redirection of $4 million of affordable housing money was so detrimental to the City, why was that money sitting unleveraged and unused for the better part of 9 months? Some suggested I was prioritizing small business owners over our poorest and neediest in our community. Our local small businesses employ 75% of our community and some are low wage hourly earners. Job security is just as important as housing security, but without a steady job, I am not sure how much of a house or apartment you can afford?
My point is that if our leaders continue to view our challenges in isolation and pit groups and issues against each other, progress will be slow. All of our challenges are linked. Traffic congestion, economic prosperity, gentrification, housing justice, and poor education opportunities are all connected and it is short sighted to dismiss the connections.
Some of the new members of Council were elected because the perception was that Council couldn’t make progress on the big items, was disconnected from their constituents, or that some Council Members were too focused on personal attacks. I am not going to validate or invalidate the perceptions at this time, but I do know we should think seriously about the methods and strategies we use to achieve the changes we seek.
For example, maybe we should sincerely try and tackle the affordable housing challenge from both ends. Yes, increasing supply is critically important, but how about we put a plan together to reduce overall demand? How about we encourage and support policies that build up under resourced communities by empowering them to grow economically so they aren’t reliant on subsidized housing or other governmental programs? How about we invest time and money in building the next class of women, African American and Hispanic entrepreneurs here in Charleston? The solution to our challenges are not $4 million in an affordable housing fund and I would argue if that’s what we are being sold — then we have bigger problems. The challenges we face are too complex and if we continue to retreat and rely on old political moves, we will not move forward. Voters are too savvy and too informed to take the bait. I had to overcome some of these tactics during my campaign and I will continue to push for a Charleston where we all rise as one — together.