CAJM Addresses Affordable Housing At Nehemiah Action Assembly

By Barney Blakeney

The Charleston Area Justice Ministry Monday night held its 2018 Nehemiah Action Assembly focusing on the ministry’s 2018 agenda of addressing affordable housing and gentrification.

Last November members voted to address that agenda in 2018. About 2,000 people attended the sixth Nehemiah Action Assembly Monday night.

CAJM’s had some success in the past. Currently some 28 congregations are members of the organization formed in 2011. Its first initiative in 2012 was to address Schools/Education and Crime/Violence.  Each year since CAJM successfully has challenged issues that include wage inequity and police bias. I hope it has as much success with affordable housing.

Often we think of low income people when we talk about affordable housing. And as often, the faces of those low income people we conjure are Black. But ‘affordable’ is a relative term. Years ago Henry Fishburne, a resident of South Battery in downtown Charleston which is one of the most affluent communities in the region, said his kids can’t afford to live on the peninsula.

That was a relative conversation. At the time I lived on the peninsula. Since then I’ve been displaced. A couple of houses have been sold out from under me. The prospect of again living on the peninsula, for me, is bleak. I work every day,  but still can’t afford to live in the community where I was born and raised. People take a lot for granted.

In a press release last week announcing the Nehemiah Action Assembly a CAJM spokesman wrote, “While Charleston County is a beautiful place to live, it is difficult for many to survive because of rising housing costs. Fifty-seven percent of renters in Charleston County pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent leaving very little money for them to pay bills, buy food and other necessary items.” According to federal income standards, housing that costs more than 30 percent of income is unaffordable.

By those standards a lot of us find our housing costs unaffordable. Kick in the light bill, food, telephone, cable, clothing and a car – and it’s a wonder how many of us make it! And don’t be a fool like me who savors a bit of the grape juice. Hold up! I’m starting to realize why my paycheck never seems to be enough!

A couple of years ago, I attended a meeting to discuss affordable housing at the Charleston Museum. The meeting room was packed, I couldn’t get in. What I found most surprising was most of the attendees were white people. For me that dispelled the myth that affordable housing is a ‘Black issue’.

A lot of folks also have figured that out. In communities like Mount Pleasant where 90 percent of residents are white, 2016 housing prices ranged from$425,000-$1.3 million. For many the thought of home ownership in Mount Pleasant is nonexistent. Even apartment rentals are a distant dream. Despite the huge scale of housing development occurring in and around the town, affordable housing ain’t there. Even for couples whose average annual income is around $75,000, meeting housing costs is a struggle.

I’m glad to see that organizations like CAJM are throwing their weight behind addressing the issue. CAJM’s done its research and found that more than 211,000 of us are facing a housing crisis and that 40 percent of homeowners and 57 percent of renters in Charleston County do not have affordable housing.

To afford a two bedroom apartment in Charleston County, one needs to earn nearly $20 per hour. A person earning minimum wage would need to work 110 hours per week to afford that same apartment.

At the action assembly CAJM told its people, “It’s time that we create a culture of funding affordable housing.” As the musical duo Hall and Oates sang, “I can go for that!”

Recently at breakfast I said to friends, everywhere you look in our community you see construction – more hotels that you can shake a stick at! How is it we’re building all these places for people to stay yet we have a homeless population of some 500 people in the Charleston area? Likewise we increase the cost of lifesaving medicines, despite its low cost production and availability, to insure higher profits from its sale. To me, that says we live in a community which has its priorities messed up.

CAJM is proposing we create a Regional Housing Coalition to implement a Housing Action Plan with participation from the City of Charleston, City of North Charleston, Town of Mount Pleasant, Charleston County, non-profit and for profit stakeholders. This is a regional problem that demands a regional solution, says CAJM.

Part of their plan is to develop Housing Trust funds that provide a dedicated source of funding for the creation, rehabilitation, and restoration of affordable housing. And then construct a Regional Housing Trust Fund proposal for adoption.

CAJM hopes to present its proposal to the councils of the City of Charleston, the City of North Charleston, the Town of Mount Pleasant, and Charleston County by October in addition to identifying other ways to increase the availability of affordable housing. Ultimately its goal is to create a long term plan to encourage the building of affordable housing.

It will take time and unwavering commitment, CAJM notes. As with other issues – like mass transportation, public education, crime and income inequality – we didn’t get here overnight. It’s going to take time to dig ourselves out from under these rocks.

I see a lot of commitment from the folks in CAJM. They’re faith-based, not motivated by profit or ego. I believe it when they say, “CAJM is a growing network of faith-based congregations who come together with one goal: to make the Charleston area more just. We are culturally, economically, geographically, and religiously, diverse.”

“Together, we speak with one powerful voice for justice for our community.” I think they’ll git ‘er done.

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