Local leaders disagree on whether requiring developers to build affordable housing units into their residential projects would have a positive impact on Beaufort County.
A proposal giving local governments that authority moved forward in the S.C. Senate on Wednesday, despite the objections of homebuilders and real estate agents who said the “forced charity” would be burdensome and ineffective.
The bill — sponsored by state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston — comes amid what activists and city officials say is an affordable housing crisis in South Carolina.
Priced out of the housing market by rising property values and rental rates, more than 80,000 low- to moderate-income South Carolinians need affordable housing, S.C. Community Loan Fund chief executive Michelle Mapp told the Senate panel Wednesday.
Kimpson’s bill would let cities and counties require developers to set aside up to 25 percent of the units within any future residential development to be priced as affordable housing. Developers could skirt that requirement by paying a fee.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and officials from Greenville and Beaufort told a Senate panel Wednesday that rising housing prices are forcing residents to live far from where they work. That, in turn, clogs commuter roads and exacerbates traffic problems, they said.
Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton, who chairs the board’s affordable housing committee, agreed, saying the bill would be a “giant step forward.”
It would be “another tool in the box to help families live and work in the same neighborhoods.”
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said Thursday she appreciates that state lawmakers have taken an interest in affordable housing.
“Sometimes the municipalities fuss at the state, but any support that focuses on affordable or workforce housing is a good thing,” she said.
Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett said the need for affordable is the largest issue the island is facing today and state lawmakers can play a role in helping to fix the problem.
“It is all about the community having more tools to allow a developer to bridge the gap,” Bennett said.
Resort towns across the country have been requiring affordable housing with residential development for some time.
“They have economies similar to ours, but they don’t have the workforce issues that we have,” Bennett said. “The state legislature should do everything they can to help communities like Hilton Head to develop a toolkit to ensure their long-term viability.”
But some local leaders questioned whether the bill would do much good here.
Steve Riley, Hilton Head Island town manager, said he is uncertain if the Town Council would implement such a practice even if it were allowed to.
“It may not have a large impact for us because we don’t have much land to develop on the island,” he said.
Yet, the law certainly couldn’t hurt to have, Riley said.
“Every bit of flexibility in planning is helpful,” he said. “It gives us more opportunity.”
Beaufort County Council chairman Paul Sommerville said he isn’t convinced there’s much local need for the bill.
“We already put affordable housing on the table during the develop agreement process, and we’ve made it a priority in our development code,” he said. “We’ve had some pretty good success without putting a gun to anyone’s head.”
Sommerville said the county has been an advocate for affordable housing while “walking the line between the velvet glove and the hammer approach.”
“Land prices are already high here, so we don’t want to price (builders) out of the market,” he said.
“I think we have a good relationship with most of our builders,” Sommerville said. “If we didn’t have that kind of relationship I might think differently” about a bill that requires developers to include affordable housing in residential projects.
Homebuilders and real estate agents say the bill would cause more harm than good.
David Black, with the Home Builders Association of South Carolina, cited a 2004 study by a right-leaning think tank that found similar regulations in 45 cities led to a 31 percent dip in new construction.
Black asked what other industries are subject to “forced charity.” Car dealerships are not forced to offer low-income cars, and grocery stores are not required to donate to food banks, he said.
Lindsay Jackson, with the S.C. Association of Realtors, said the cost of offering housing at below-market prices would be passed on to consumers and landowners. “These policies can exacerbate the affordable-housing problems they are designed to address.”
The real estate group is forming a task force to address the affordable-housing shortage, Jackson said.
Affordable-housing advocates said offering developers incentives to voluntarily build less expensive housing has not worked.
“It is important for this bill to have some teeth to it,” said Tracy Doran, president of the Lowcountry-based Humanities Foundation.
The bill is unlikely to pass this year after missing a crucial deadline to pass the full Senate. However, it could be taken up again next year.
Lucas High and Teresa Moss of The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette contributed to this report.