Where the work is the most challenging, it is also the most rewarding. And so it is with efforts to foster attainable housing opportunities in Mt. Pleasant.
When Housing for All — Mt. Pleasant received its 501(c)(3) status six months ago, we knew we had an uphill climb.
A "no growth" sentiment has emanated from a vocal minority here over the past few years, echoing down the town's disconnected streets, while longtime residents are priced out and many first responders, nurses, and teachers are forced to live out of town where the cost of housing is more affordable.
In these times, designating the entirety of South Carolina's fourth-largest municipality as off-limits to multi-family dwellings is justified under the false flag of "preserving local character."
As a Mt. Pleasant native myself, I understand that residents want to hold close the qualities that drew them to the area in the first place (often just a few years ago). For me, at least, that starts with a sense of community.
The "character" argument has too often translated into exclusionary policies that make housing scarce and inaccessible for seniors and a large segment of the workforce. No matter what the endgame is, the result is pushing and keeping even middle-income earners out, away from their jobs and away from the community where they contribute so much.
It also generates outrageous commutes.
Councilmember Joe Bustos was recently quoted in the Post and Courier saying that, "Affordable Housing is going to bring traffic."
Actually, what will generate car trips are workers streaming into and out of town by the tens-of-thousands, up Highway 17 from West Ashley or along Long Point Road and Highway 41 from Berkeley County. Very few employees at Lowe's or Costco can afford to live remotely close to their jobs. The same is probably true for your barber or favorite babysitter. All told, 70 percent of the town's workforce travels from other municipalities.
Often, that's due to crushingly high housing costs. For instance, a nursing assistant at a local hospital would have to work 97 hours per week to afford the town's median rent in a one-bedroom apartment.
You may still ask, "So what?"
Here's why it matters: We have talked to employers all over town who bemoan the fact that they can't attract and retain talent. That results in paying a premium to hire talent.
For Mt. Pleasant residents, that means higher prices and lower-quality service — and that's a quality of life issue.
New housing has not kept pace with demand in Mt. Pleasant. Period. While some councilmembers say that the private sector should address attainable housing and employers should pay more (which, also true), policies such as the building permit allocation system and the moratorium on multifamily construction artificially manipulate the market and only serve to drive prices higher.
While no one has the divine right to live in Mt. Pleasant, the argument that those who can't afford current housing rates shouldn't have access falls flat when the government has had a hand in raising prices.
As a backdrop to this debate, the town is also in desperate need of economic development and it routinely faces difficulty in attracting businesses because prospects know it's too expensive for their employees to live here. (We can dive into the negative impacts of exorbitant impact fees some other time.) Even with an unlikely barrage of new businesses, big tax increases are looming.
Meanwhile, the entirety of the town's investment in attainable housing pencils out to just 75 cents per resident. Council allocated $50,000 to Housing for All in its first year and another $50,000 in 2019 — if we could raise a matching $50,000. We've collected the first $15,000 of that so far. While that help has been invaluable to our efforts, it needs to be much more (In the meantime, feel free to chip in yourself at housingforallmtp.com).
Councilmembers, led by Mr. Bustos, recently shot down a proposal by Councilmember Tom O'Rourke that would have put a greenspace and attainable housing question on the ballot in November. This, despite the fact that Charleston County and City of Charleston residents have both voted twice in favor of such measures, including the city's $20 million bond referendum in 2017.
Quite simply, town council should put the question to people of Mt. Pleasant.
Yet, progress is being made here!
Housing for All continues to enlist the support of forward-thinking, locally-based organizations, community leaders, businesses, and banks in our fundraising efforts. We're lending our resources to well-established organizations in their mission to preserve what little attainable housing exists in the town. We're working with local community leaders whose families have been here for generations to develop a pilot project that will address the attainable housing crisis while also bridging wealth disparities for people who are land rich and cash poor.
The latter effort will result in what we hope will be a national model to confront multiple social inequities with one solution. We're working with some of the largest employers in the town to design employer assisted housing initiatives. And we're building public-private partnerships that we hope will spawn economic development opportunities and new housing units at well below market rates.
Of course, we need your help. Show up to town council and county council meetings. Host our team for a meet-and-greet. Contribute financially. The time to address this crisis is now and we are encouraged that together we can make housing for all a reality in Mt. Pleasant.
It won't be easy, but it will be most rewarding.
Melissa Moore is the director of operations for Housing for All — Mt. Pleasant.