We had hoped Charleston County would make more progress this year securing a significant source of local funding for affordable housing efforts beyond the $20 million it committed last month, but that seems less likely. day by day. In the end, getting it right is more important to the county council than getting it done quickly.
Since a 2020 county proposal on affordable housing ended in a narrow defeat in a referendum, we have urged the county council to try again – but only after agreeing a detailed strategy on how whose money would be spent. This does not mean a list of specific projects, but rather a framework for the types of housing initiatives that could get financial support.
Such a framework is being created, but its first draft will not be presented to the public until September, weeks after the county council must decide on the legal language it wants to present to voters in this general election. year. This means that there can be nothing legally or even politically binding in the framework. And that means council members should drop the idea of holding a referendum this year and focus instead on creating a strategic housing plan that can win broad support.
Our growing deficit of affordable housing – both for renters and for those who want to own their own home – is one of the most pressing challenges facing the greater Charleston area, where land and housing prices are rising well into the above inflation, and well above most other US metropolitan areas. . Without action, our economy can be expected to plateau or even crash as more employers seek to build new factories or offices elsewhere where their employees can find affordable housing.
The county council struggled to come up with referendum language earlier this month, and while it is scheduled to meet again before the August 15 deadline to submit questions to election officials, we do not expect not much chance for a significant breakthrough. Even the first draft of a county housing plan will not be available in time to help shape the wording. And the wording must be specific – and binding.
After all, the county board still faces understandable public skepticism about its flip-flop on whether its latest transit sales tax referendum would include more money to extend Interstate 526 to James and Johns Islands. Council members removed a reference to this project from the ballot and repeatedly assured voters that it would not be funded by sales tax, only to add it back to their list after voters approved the tax increase. The skyrocketing projected costs of the project did nothing to mitigate this betrayal of public trust.
The housing proposal could be presented in September, but the county council may not finally approve it until December, so if a referendum is held on November 8, voters could still rightly wonder what the final version will be.
As noted, the plan will be difficult because the county has diverse areas with different housing wants and needs. Its urban core differs from its suburban neighborhoods, which differ from its seaside communities and remote rural areas. Making leaders in these areas feel like they’re getting an appropriate piece of the pie is a daunting task.
Not rushing the referendum this fall would give council members more leeway to tackle this task and use the $20 million to start and score some early successes that could help build a much more compelling case for voters in two years.