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Attractive but unaffordable, Mt. Pleasant is pushing out its working class

'It Was Heartbreaking'

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For LuAnn Rosenzweig, watching her Mt. Pleasant home triple in value has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Not because she's looking to cash in on her property any time soon, but because the skyrocketing listing price was not something the retired speech pathologist expected when she bought her Molasses Creek home in 1991 for $236,000.

"We would never be able to afford this home if we were moving in today," Rosenzweig said. "We fortunately moved in before the big housing boom."

When it comes to Mt. Pleasant, serious discussions about livability and gentrification often take a backseat to the town's white picket fence milieu. The town's 87,000 residents aren't just Whole Foods regulars who can afford million-dollar homes. They're also multi-generational African-American homeowners attempting to preserve their family legacies, or young professionals in the region's booming tech and hospitality industries paying inflated rents for bedrooms near their jobs.

They're a far cry from the teachers, police officers, and emergency responders who are usually targeted in affordable or "workforce" housing initiatives.

"You get down to hotel workers, and restaurant industry workers, making minimum wage — they're at the far low end of the bracket," said Mt. Pleasant Councilwoman Guang Ming Whitley.

Whitley is the only representative from the town working with the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, an interfaith social justice advocacy group trying to lay the groundwork for a regional housing land trust.

A lack of affordable housing doesn't just erode the diverse fabric of the community, Whitley says, it also burdens the town's businesses, which often have trouble finding reliable workers who can afford to live close by.

"There's a lot of turnover in these jobs because people don't want to commute that far," Whitley said. "When they find something that pays better closer to home, they leave that job behind."

Only about 27 percent of people in Charleston County both live and work there, according to the latest data from the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. A plurality of workers, about 41 percent, commute from other places. That number is even higher in Mt. Pleasant, where 72 percent of the local workforce lives elsewhere, according to a 2016 survey by the town's affordable housing task force.

"Just go live in North Charleston"

Rosenzweig's adult son works at a grocery store in Mt. Pleasant. So far, the only way he's been able to avoid the commuter's fate is by living at home with his parents.

"He wouldn't be able to purchase housing on his own," she said.

Some of his co-workers have transferred to stores in Summerville or Goose Creek to work closer to home.

"By the way, the ones that do live in Mt. Pleasant, almost all of them live with relatives or roommates," Rosenzweig clarified.

The average single-family detached home in Upper Mount Pleasant, the area roughly north of the Isle of Palms connector, sold for $575,000 last year, according to the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. In Lower Mount Pleasant, the area closest to downtown Charleston, the average home went for $674,000.

In 2016, Stacey Toney was in the market for a new home. Her landlord in the 840-square-foot home she rented for $1,200 in 2013 was suddenly demanding $2,800 a month.

Toney, a 50-year-old single mother who makes about $33,000 a year, was met with a curt admonishment from the owner of a property she was interested in renting. In an email to Toney's realtor, the owner wrote, "that I needed to just go live in North Charleston," Toney recalls.

"This is where my kids went to school, and we had already been established," she said. "It's not like I was gonna pick my kids up and move to North Charleston."

Eventually, the housing market made the decision for her. Toney's two remaining school-age children now live with their dad in Hanahan, where they attend Berkeley County schools. Toney is renting an efficiency above a garage in Mt. Pleasant for $1,000 a month. Expensive, but still below the median monthly rent of $1,299, according to 2015 census data.

"It all boils down to I couldn't find an affordable place to live," she said. "It was tough. It was heartbreaking."

Why is housing so expensive?

The biggest obstacle to building affordable housing in Mt. Pleasant is basically insurmountable: There's barely any land left. The high cost of dirt, driven up by low-density development (65 percent of the town's housing stock consists of single-family, detached homes), makes building affordable housing units wildly expensive for governments or nonprofits.

"There just isn't a lot of open land left in Mt. Pleasant, and what's left is very expensive," said Councilwoman Whitley. "I've seen empty lots for $600,000, and at some point, we can't subsidize housing that much to create affordable housing."

"You'd have to rely on the largess of others," she added, citing churches willing to donate land for affordable housing projects or large businesses willing to contribute to housing trusts in order to sustain their workforce.

Last year, Housing For All - Mt. Pleasant was formed in an effort to coordinate a robust, lasting response to the town's affordable housing problem. The nonprofit arose from recommendations put forth by the town's affordable housing task force.

Last month, Melissa Moore joined the organization as the director of operations. Moore is the former executive director of local LGBTQ youth organization We Are Family, which helped establish a homeless resource center in downtown Charleston last year. (The center is now run by Military Community Connection, a veteran-focused nonprofit.)

Housing For All's efforts, much like CAJM's, are still in the early stages. Right now, no one knows the best way to encourage affordable housing in Mt. Pleasant and beyond.

"We're talking to landowners, developers, and looking at existing housing stock to see if any of that can be converted to attainable housing," Moore said. "Whether that plays out in terms of getting subsidies to help subsidize people moving into housing, or whether that looks like us somehow helping property owners get some sort of incentives to turn existing stock into attainable housing, we don't know yet."

In the meantime, Mt. Pleasant will remain an attractive place for developers and newcomers who can afford it.

"Mt. Pleasant is attractive to people because it's close to the beach, the schools are really good, so people wanna buy in Mt. Pleasant because it's prime property," Moore said.

"I've lived all over this country — Chicago, L.A., Alaska," said Councilwoman Whitley. "Mt. Pleasant is just a fantastic place to live."

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