An unprecedented number of people weighed in on their difficulties finding a place to live in Beaufort County, according to a new report.
Last year, Beaufort County hired Bowen National Research, a real estate market research firm, to complete a countywide housing needs study for $39,000.
The firm spent eight months evaluating the county’s demographics, analyzing economic conditions, gathering input from residents and stakeholders and establishing housing priorities for the county and municipalities.
The firm received more than 1,800 survey responses from residents and nearly 50 from government stakeholders and employers. The survey was available to all residents and distributed through various email lists, including Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett's weekly newsletter.
Among the residents who participated, 63 percent said they had trouble finding a suitable place to live in Beaufort County.
"We've often done surveys with residents, but you guys broke the record easily," said Patrick Bowen, president of Bowen National Research.
Although the final report will not be publicly released until next week, Bowen presented key findings to an audience of more than 100 attendees at a Lowcountry Affordable Housing Coalition meeting Wednesday.
According to Bowen, demand for nearly every housing type and price point in every area of the county is going to rise as the county continues to expand in the coming years.
"Across every submarket, everyone is getting impacted by this growth," Bowen said. "It isn’t just one community over another. They’re all growing, and all are projected to continue to grow."
Still, Bowen stressed that building affordable housing will be "critical" for Beaufort County.
Findings from the County Housing Needs Assessment show:
47.4 percent of Beaufort County renters are "cost-burdened" or paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. Northern unincorporated Beaufort County had the highest amount of cost-burdened renters at 55.9 percent.
33.5 percent of Beaufort County homeowners are paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, which is significantly higher than the statewide average of 23 percent.
70 percent of the available housing inventory for sale is priced above $300,000, while only 10 percent of the inventory is available for less than $200,000.
While about 18 percent of Beaufort County residents can afford to pay only $500 in rent, only 6.3 percent of the rental housing market is listed for $500 or less.
"There’s more people that have a certain income level than the inventory that they can afford," Bowen said. "So what happens is that those people are moving up to the next product level and they’re paying a higher share of their income."
More than 300 Beaufort County residents are on the waiting list for public housing units and more than 1,000 residents are waiting to get a housing choice voucher, according to the report. Residents seeking those two forms of government subsidized housing could spend up to three years waiting for assistance, Bowen said.
"If you’re trying to summarize the multifamily housing market, there’s very limited availability across the county in all price points, but it’s most pronounced among those who are trying to seek affordable housing — particularly those who make up to 60 percent of the area median income," Bowen said.
In addition to affordable housing, Bowen said other segments of the housing market cannot be ignored, including housing for seniors in need of care, millennials who want to rent or want to become first-time home buyers and families in the upper-level income bracket.
About 200 beds for senior care housing facilities will need to be added annually in Beaufort County to keep up with the number of aging residents.
If the county wants to attract business and high-ranking executives, more housing in the high-income segment needs to be built in the coming years
The county needs to start planning ways to attract and house the next-biggest segment of the population behind baby boomers — millennials.
Hilton Head Island Mayor Bennett, who attended the housing coalition meeting Wednesday, said the findings highlighted a need for solutions to the sizable housing issue not just on Hilton Head but across the entire county.
"I think the exciting thing and a good takeaway from today is that all across the county, we are all talking about the issue, and I'm confident that solutions will come forward from that," Bennett said.
Bowen, however, stressed that it's going to take more than just talk to fix the housing issues in the county.
First, he recommends that the county and municipalities set concrete goals.
"I know that sounds so basic, but you really need to have something that says 'this is what we want to achieve' and from there you can start to build your priorities and policies," Bowen said.
Bluffton Town Councilman Dan Wood said the town has been moving forward with affordable housing initiatives.
In April, the town agreed to purchase a 1.78-acre plot of land at 1095 May River Road for $236,000. The sale is expected to close in July or August. Wood said the town plans to use the land for affordable housing.
"We weren't just waiting for the study to come out because, obviously, there's a need," he said. "We didn't need the study to indicate that, but we do need the study to give us factual information on how dire the needs are."
Wood would like to see the town buy more land and use that land as an incentive for developers to build affordable homes for sales and rental units.
"It's blatantly obvious there's a need for both," Wood said. "You can't solve our problem just by (for-sale) housing, because there's a lot of young professionals who are not ready to go buy a home."
Some of Bowen's recommendations on how to create more affordable housing in the county include:
- Implementing "inclusionary zoning," which means setting aside a number of units in new apartment complexes or other new developments for those who earn low to moderate incomes
- Simplifying the permitting process so that it is quicker for developers who plan to include affordable housing
- Waive building fees for affordable housing developers
Bowen also recommended that Beaufort County fill its open position for a Housing Enrichment Coordinator, who will develop, coordinate and manage a countywide affordable housing program, according to the job listing. The coordinator, who is required to have seven years' experience in a similar housing capacity, will earn an annual salary of $57,000, the listing said.
In November 2017, the county conducted its first round of interviews for the position, but the selected candidate fell through.
After failing to fill the role for nearly eight months, the county recently started working with a recruitment agency to try and identify qualified applicants.
"It's been a tough process," said Ben Boswell, administrative manager for the Beaufort County Human Services Alliance. "But we're optimistic that the recruiter will help us identify some folks soon."
County Councilman Paul Sommerville said he's looking forward to hearing some specific recommendations once a housing coordinator is hired.
"This is the first time we’ve decided to go to the point of hiring a professional who is dedicated to this," Sommerville said. "... (The county's housing crisis) has always been a challenging topic — and I'm sure it always will be — but this is the first time we've had an analysis and a coordinator to guide us."
In spite of the county's "major problems" with substantial future growth and widespread housing needs, Bowen ended his presentation Wednesday on a somewhat optimistic note.
"I would maybe rather have this problem than that of some of the communities I’ve studied where they’re losing people, the job market is stagnant, housing prices are dropping and people are losing equity in their homes," he said. "... because I think you can more actively try to change things."