A development firm co-owned by Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett is vying to expand its role in Bluffton's affordable housing market.
Bennett, along with Bennett & Reindl LLC partners Duane Reindl and Terri Bennett, pitched their company to town officials earlier this week during a presentation to the Affordable Housing Committee. Terri Bennett is David Bennett's wife.
Bluffton officials recently put out a request to developers to help provide a vision for strategies and to potentially partner on future construction projects, Kendra Lelie, Bluffton's assistant director of growth management, said at the committee meeting Tuesday.
Bennett stressed the importance of building a public-private partnership as a way to address affordability problems in Bluffton and other parts of Beaufort County.
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"People who work in our communities don't have the ability to live in our communities," he said.
"I am in a unique position to be able to see the need for affordable housing from both a developer's perspective as well as from a community official's perspective. I see everyday first-hand the impact of the lack of affordable housing in our communities."
Creating more affordable house on Hilton Head Island was a cornerstone of Bennett's 2014 mayoral campaign. To date, he has not publicly recommended how to tackle the issue on the island.
But his company has some experience developing affordable properties in greater Bluffton.
In 2011, it took advantage of state and federal grant and incentive programs to build the May River Village Apartments complex near the intersection of Bruin and Burnt Church roads.
Rental units in that complex are leased to those who earn between 50 and 60 percent of the county's median income, Bennett said.
"So, for a family of four, we are talking about families that are earning somewhere between the $25,000 and $45,000 per year range."
Bennett said the project has been a success and the apartments have been "fully-occupied since Day One."
"We have not had a vacancy in three years."
The company is also in the process of adding 40 new apartments to the 68-unit complex to help meet the steady demand for affordable housing.
The majority of the company's work is in Indiana, Bennett's home state.
The town has had mixed results in its attempts to improve affordable housing.
Last year, it launched the Bluffton Home Series project, which offers financial and planning assistance to residents for new modular homes. The homes are prefabricated and typically assembled in sections.
While officials say some residents have expressed interest, none have completed the process.
On the other hand, the town overcame early organizational struggles to complete the Wharf Street affordable-housing development in 2012.
That $1.2 million project, funded mainly through federal grants, saw the construction of six new homes which were sold by the town to residents based upon income requirements.
The development became fully-occupied when the final home was sold in 2013.
In 2014, it was recognized as the region's best community revitalization project by Southern Living magazine.
Despite the project's success, its limited scope addressed "just a small chunk" of the local demand for affordable housing, Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton said.
"Asking for a developer to come in is key because we need to partner with somebody" in order to continue satisfying that demand, he said.
OWNERSDHIP VS. RENTALS
Town officials have yet to clarify specifically what they are looking for in a developer partnership.
But several members of the Affordable Housing Committee said they would like to see future projects that are more like the for-purchase homes in the Wharf Street development and less like the May River Village Apartments rental model.
"The American dream is home ownership and that's what I'm looking for," Hamilton said.
Committee member Denolis Polite agreed.
"Mov(ing) people from a rental perspective to home ownership ... is where we should put some of the focus," she said.
Bennett said his firm could accommodate that vision.
"In our view, its probably important to have both a rental and a for-sale component" in future affordable housing partnerships between the town and developers, he said.
The company is the first to reach out to the town about a potential partnership.
While town officials await interest from other companies, the council will soon begin considering overhauling the incentive programs the town uses to entice developers to build affordable housing.
"One of the things we are struggling with is seeing affordable housing produced with the incentives we have on the books now," Lelie said.
Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.
- Few applicants for Bluffton's affordable Wharf Street homes , Aug. 5, 2012
- Bluffton has buyer for last Wharf Street home , July 27, 2013
- May River Village Apartments' groundbreaking set , May 4, 2011