As Bluffton’s population has grown, one thing has not: affordable places for new residents to live.
The area’s “rapidly rising” cost of living, particularly for rents and mortgages, is “causing hardship on low to moderate income families,” Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton, who leads the town’s Affordable Housing Committee, said earlier this week.
While town leaders have implemented measures to improve housing affordability, those efforts have had little success.
Here’s what hasn’t worked so far:
▪ Over the past several years, the town has put out feelers in hopes of finding developers to partner with on home construction projects.
Builders have shown little interest and no such partnership has materialized.
▪ In 2014, the town launched the Bluffton Home Series project. The program offers financial and planning assistance to residents for new modular homes, which are prefabricated and typically less expensive than traditional houses.
No one has taken advantage of the program in the three years since its inception.
▪ Last year, the town adopted a set of incentives aimed at enticing builders to include affordable housing units in their development projects.
Those incentives — which allow developers to squeeze more units on a smaller parcels of land as long as a certain number of those units are priced below market value — have been met with indifference.
“We don’t see a lot of people taking us up on (current incentives), so we have to think about how can we change them” to make them work for both residents and developers, Affordable Housing Committee vice-chairwoman Sheri Kroupa said earlier this week.
Beaufort County Housing Authority director Angela Childers said Thursday that Bluffton “is really being very progressive in trying new things — certainly I applaud that.” But, “historically — throughout the country — we’ve found that incentives don’t work in many instances,” because even with generous enticements developers can make much higher profits selling homes at market rates, she said.
In other parts of the county, state and local governments have created requirements to ensure a certain portion of every development is affordably priced, Childers said.
While that approach can be effective, Childers said she wouldn’t recommend it in Bluffton.
If developers were forced to build less profitable homes, they would simply do business elsewhere, she said.
Calling Bluffton “a unique community with rich diversity and culture,” Hamilton said its lack of affordable housing forces working families out or prohibits a diverse mix of people from moving in. And that, he said, “would be devastating and a shame,” he said.
Councilman Dan Wood said town leaders must work with developers to come up with new “multifaceted ways to attack this problem.”
Because land suitable for development in town is relatively scarce — and therefor expensive — Wood suggested allowing taller buildings that can accommodate more units on a smaller lot.
Town planning manager Kevin Icard said that structures in most parts of town are limited to two or three stories, but regulations could be tweaked to allow developers leeway to “start going up rather than out.”
Providing land for developers to build on could be an effective incentive, town leaders say.
“Land acquisition is something the (Town) Council talks about all the time,” Wood said.
In fact, the town recently bought a 1.5-acre property on Boundary Street just south of DuBois Park.
Several vacant homes sit on the property. Initial plans have called for them to be demolished to make room for open space and a parking area. But some committee members have suggested leaving them and allowing low to moderate income families to move in.
Bluffton leaders have scheduled a public forum to meet with developers and discuss ways to improve affordable housing.
The forum is set for 5:30 p.m. July 24 at the Rotary Community Center in Oscar Frazier Park, 11 Recreation Court.