Bluffton residents for 17 years, couple uprooted because of rent increase
Skyler Cochran grew up in Bluffton, but she is worried her daughter won't.
Cochran is a resident of Bluffton House, an apartment complex that once catered to low and moderate-income tenants in need of an affordable place to live.
The owner of the complex, Massachusetts-based company Aspen Square, recently began remodeling vacant units into luxury apartments after the development's 15-year tax credit for affordable housing expired earlier this year.
The end result is that rents will increase for both current and new residents.
When her lease expires next year, Cochran said she will have to pay an additional $300 a month.
Cochran, a nursing student, said her family can't afford that on her husband's security guard salary.
She believes they will have to leave Bluffton to find a place they can afford.
"Many families like myself are forced to move with no place else to go," Cochran said during a conversation via social media last week.
"We are going to have to move from Bluffton because there is no place affordable for young couples and college students starting out," she said. "Bluffton House was a place for people like us. Where (are) the working poor going to live?"
"DISGUSTED AND FED UP"
It isn't just low-wage service industry workers who need affordable housing.
Some renters have circumstances that prevent them from working full time.
Douglas "Bill" Boulware and his wife Kristi are both blind and suffer from other physical disabilities.
They used Section 8 housing vouchers to help pay their rent at Bluffton House for the past 17 years.
When their lease expired at the end of May, Douglas said their monthly rent was set to increase by about $200.
The Boulwares can't afford it.
When they couldn't get a sufficient increase in their Section 8 housing assistance, they had no choice but to move into Douglas' mother's home in Port Royal.
Douglas called the move "very stressful" and said he misses living in Bluffton.
"It was convenient. We could walk to everything: restaurants, our doctor's office, the pharmacy," he said last week.
Douglas' mother Marla Heyward said losing their apartment in Bluffton House has taken a toll on her son and daughter-in-law.
"They are very depressed and sometimes won't come out of their room," she said. "We can't keep on like this; it's terrible."
Douglas said he would like to find a new place, but has been unable to find anything he can afford.
He said he is beginning to feel "disgusted and fed up" with the process.
Beaufort Housing Authority director Angela Childers said last week her organization is seeing low-income renters flee the Bluffton area in "a huge way."
Population growth and the resulting rise in rental prices is a big reason for that flight, she said.
The average cost for a one bedroom apartment in Beaufort County is more than $200 higher than a similar sized unit in nearby Jasper County, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics.
Aspen Square area supervisor Wendy Crate said last week that current Bluffton House residents might see "slight (rent) increases based on market rates" when their leases expire, but the company's goal is not to force people out.
"We don't want anybody to leave the property; that's not how we operate," she said. "We are in the business of renting apartments, not making people move out."
Crate said any resident with questions or concerns about their rent should contact the property staff to discuss possible options.
"Communication is important, whether they have (a maintenance) issue in their apartment or they want to discuss their rent," she said.
STRAIN ON LABOR MARKET
The economy of southern Beaufort County relies heavily on the hospitality and service industries, which employ many low-wage workers.
"There is really a need for affordable housing for our service industry workers, or we are going to price them out of the (rental) market," Childers said.
"People aren't going to ride a bus two hours to Hilton Head (from far-flung parts of the region) to work at the resorts and restaurants."
Narendra Sharma, director of Hilton Head-based nonprofit Neighborhood Outreach Connection, said "the impact on the local workforce will be huge" if service and hospitality industry employees are priced out.
"As these folks are pushed to other areas, the local labor supply gets squeezed more and more."
And that can affect the employers' bottom line, he said.
Sharma, whose nonprofit operates an after-school program out of a Bluffton House apartment, said ever-increasing rents could result in Bluffton losing some of its character.
"The question is about whether we want to have diversity in our local population," he said. "If we keep going like this, we are only going to have retirees. All of the younger people and families won't be able to afford to live here."
Former Bluffton House resident Manjery Espinosa agrees.
"I really loved Bluffton, and I would say I still love Bluffton," she said last week. "But Bluffton is becoming a very expensive place, and I'm just afraid it's going to lose its charm."
Espinosa moved in August with her husband and five children to a larger, similarly priced home near Beaufort.
"It's not just people (who) live in gated communities and luxury apartments who give (the town) its character," she said. "It's the regular, working people, too."
RENTING VS. OWNING
Town councilman Fred Hamilton, who serves on the Affordable Housing Committee, said it's important to do everything possible "to keep the character of Bluffton intact."
The town has taken on several affordable housing initiatives in recent years in an effort to do just that.
In 2012, the town completed the Wharf Street redevelopment project.
That $1.2 million project, funded mainly through federal grants, saw the construction of six new homes that were sold by the town to residents based upon income requirements.
But for people like Cochran, who might not be in a position to purchase a home, even at a discounted rate, programs that encourage homeownership are of little help.
"We have no credit so (we) can't buy (a) house," she said.
Still, Hamilton said the town is best served by focusing its limited resources on projects that support homeownership.
"We have a small pot of money that we have in our budget (for affordable housing initiatives)," he said. "And our focus is more about giving people the American dream of owning a home, rather than renting."
Town officials are considering other ways to help low-income renters, such as providing incentives for developers to build more affordable housing units.
Those incentives include fee reductions and design standard flexibility for developers who invest in affordable housing. But no specific plans have been adopted by town council.
Meanwhile, Cochran said she feels her family has no choice but to follow Espinosa and the Boulwares out of town, the place she's "lived (her) entire life."
Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.
- Bluffton House affordable-housing complex being renovated into luxury apartments, Sept. 8, 2015
- Bluffton looking for way to encourage affordable housing development, Sept. 1, 2015