Bluffton’s high cost of land and the expense of various fees associated with home construction are prohibiting builders from including affordable housing in town projects.
Town leaders heard this sentiment Monday night during a forum with local builders, developers, and real estate professionals.
The forum — aimed at soliciting ideas from the public and developers for ways to make the town more livable for low- to moderate-income workers and families — was hosted by Bluffton’s Affordable Housing Committee.
Committee chairman and Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton said stakeholders must “get away from just talking about it and do something about it.”
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka agreed, saying, “We have got to help our younger generation; we have got to help these families who don’t want to get pushed out of our town.”
Town leaders “want to partner with (the public and developers) because we can’t do it alone,” Hamilton said.
Ben Kennedy with Brighton Builders suggested Monday evening that a partnership with the town could come in the form of “land leases or land lease options.”
Essentially, this would allow developers to build homes on land owned by the town and leased to the developers on a long-term basis.
This concept struck a chord with many in attendance Monday, including Beaufort County Housing Authority director Angela Childers.
“If the town owns the land, the town can make the rules” and ensure the housing “will be affordable forever,” she said. This would help avoid the problem of developers building affordably priced units only to raise the price after a certain number of years.
Another way Bluffton could deal with the issue of expensive land is to change town code — which currently allows only two- or three-story buildings in most areas — to allow for higher apartment buildings.
Alan Wolf with SERG Restaurant Group — a major local employer with concerns about housing for its workers — said, “I encourage you to think vertical in terms of apartments.”
Sulka said it could be possible to “consider height (increases) … in certain areas if that can get some additional density.”
She also suggested it might behoove the town to look at ways to encourage more housing development above existing commercial spaces.
Local developer John Reed suggested the town evaluate the various pre-construction costs such as impact, permit application, and development plan review fees — which can be thousands of dollars per home — to encourage more housing affordability.
Hamilton agreed, saying, “We are all concerned about the fees.”
Childers said her agency has been lobbying for Beaufort County to hire a countywide affordable housing coordinator, and perhaps “that person could advocate for (reduction) of some of those fees.”
Other suggestions from builders included hiring a liaison to help developers secure grants for affordable housing, partnering with nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, and bumping affordable housing efforts to the top of the town’s list of projects leaders must approve.
Past efforts to boost affordable housing have been met with little enthusiasm from builders.
Former Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnson likened the task to “pushing a wet noodle up a hill with our nose.”
Over the past several years, the town has put out feelers in hopes of finding developers to partner with on home construction projects.
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 have thus far failed to bear much fruit.
Bluffton officials said Monday that they plan to continue conversations with developers with the goal of drafting a set of recommendations for improving housing affordability. Those recommendations would ultimately be presented to the Town Council for consideration.