In the coming months, downtown Charleston's Simons Street will go through some major changes. The North Central neighborhood's newest housing development, located at 58 Simons St., will feature 14 towering homes priced in the $300,000s and designed by some of Charleston's top architects.
But down the block is a much more modest structure. The little house at 76 Simons St. recently went through a big renovation, and its fresh coat of yellow paint makes it the shining star of the block — at least, until those new homes are finished.
Across the street from 76 Simons is the house's owner, the New Israel Reformed Episcopal Church. For the last few decades, the church has acquired properties throughout the North Central area, starting back when the neighborhood was less desirable than its current high home costs would have you believe. "When a facility or dilapidated building became available, if it was within our means, we would try to purchase it and try to help clean up the environment in this area," says Seaward Middleton, the church's junior warden.
As a result, New Israel owns about 10 properties throughout the Simons and Romney corridor. Some, like 76 Simons, need a lot of work. Others are vacant lots that could support one or multiple new constructions. But New Israel isn't looking to profit from its purchases. Instead, the church's goal is to provide houses to low- and medium-income families in a neighborhood that is becoming increasingly unaffordable to them.
New Israel's mission started to materialize two years ago, when the church connected with PASTORS, Inc., an affordable housing and economic development nonprofit. Founded in 1999, the organization's goal is to revitalize a community using the faith-based sector as an outreach mechanism, according to F. A. Johnson II, PASTORS director of development. As Johnson says, affordable housing on the peninsula is a critical issue, one so important that it's a part of the City of Charleston's comprehensive plan.
"Can someone that's a former veteran, that's on public assistance, can a teacher, can a firefighter, can the people that push us around on a gurney in a hospital, can they actually afford to live close to where they work?" Johnson asks. "That's where it becomes so critical that we have these opportunities to preserve housing units as being affordable."
In the last few years, PASTORS has provided technical assistance to churches that already own property, like New Israel. Since the church couldn't afford to renovate 76 Simons on its own, PASTORS stepped in to take the lead. The organization helped New Israel determine project feasibility, assess costs, apply for funding, and more.
For the Simons Street house, PASTORS approached the City of Charleston for funding. The city offers a federal Home Investment Partnership Program Grant, or Home Grant for short, to projects like 76 Simons. According to Geona Johnson, the director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, her office's mission is to help facilitate development and to provide peninsula housing to low- and moderate-income families. "The city pursued funding from the federal government for that purpose, and so we want to be able to provide safe, decent, and affordably priced housing," she says. "We also want to provide homes that are aesthetically pleasing to the community, so we take care to make sure that if a home is built for someone at low and moderate incomes, that that home is indistinguishable from any other home on that block."
Johnson says that the 76 Simons renovation cost $168,000. Since it was a historic house, special considerations had to be taken, and the city also wanted to achieve Energy Star levels on the construction, so that future renters or owners won't have to worry about expensive electric bills.
The renovation was completed last month. "Not all of the church leadership was necessarily on board with the idea of the church undertaking physical development, so it helped to start with a small project so they could see a quick success," Johnson says. With 76 Simons completed and ready to rent, New Israel and PASTORS will begin tackling some of the church's other properties.
Right now, New Israel, PASTORS, and the city are searching for 76 Simons' first occupants. Middleton says that interested applicants don't have to be members of the church, and he suggests that potential tenants contact New Israel to learn more.
"To live in Charleston now is very expensive," Middleton says. "A lot of the low-income families just can't afford to live here. To have a great community, we think that it should be an integrated community with race, with finances, with social standing. This would help complete, or at least add to, the equation of a balanced society."
For more information about 76 Simons St., call New Israel Reformed Episcopal Church at (843) 723-5500. In addition to helping provide affordable housing, PASTORS plans to roll out educational initiatives for home buying and foreclosure prevention later this summer.