Bluffton official questions town's foray into affordable housing

After a split with Habitat for Humanity over a $1 million affordable-housing project in old town Bluffton, town officials are weighing their newfound responsibilities of building, marketing and selling the six homes.

A debate also is developing about whether any of that should be the town's responsibility.

Major project details that the local Habitat chapter would have handled -- selecting families, handling sales and mortgages, and offering warranties on repairs -- were discussed Thursday by the town's Affordable Housing Subcommittee.

Marc Orlando, assistant town manager for growth management, said his staff has been "working around the clock" to come up with a building schedule, guidelines for selecting homeowners and finding other partners to replace Habitat.

"To be completely honest, there is a lot to do," Orlando told subcommittee members.

That's exactly what Don Blair, a town Planning Commission member, is worried about. Blair, a retired architect and community planner who said he has consulted with the town on affordable housing for more than a decade, said the Habitat partnership was an ideal marriage.

For the town to try to handle a complicated business in-house with no experience is "really scary," he said.

"You're getting a lot of positive thinking, and the worst thing about that is, you talk yourself into thinking you know something you don't," Blair said.

Councilman Fred Hamilton, who campaigned on the promise of providing affordable housing, said he remains confident about the project's future. He said the town's vision could become a model for the region and partnering with Habitat is not the only option.

"Naysayers say it can't be done or shouldn't be done, but we're at the task," Hamilton said.

The town has reached some milestones. Demolition and site-clearing on the corner of Wharf and Robertson streets has been completed, and staff is deciding among several companies for a contract to build the six modular cottages, Orlando said.

The project is funded by a federal Neighborhood Stabilization Grant, a grant from the Lowcountry Council of Governments and town money.

Habitat ended the partnership over concerns about a May 15 federal grant deadline for the project's completion. Executive director Pat Wirth said the town should get an extension to ensure the funding doesn't fall through, while town officials said they had an oral agreement with the state housing authority, which administers the grant, that the money wouldn't be lost.

Orlando said there were some benefits to the partnership's end, including the cottage design, which differs from Habitat homes and fits better with old-town appearances. Also, instead of a Habitat-backed mortgage, the town can recoup money on mortgage payments and funnel that back into other affordable-housing efforts, he said.

That could potentially include buying foreclosed land and donating it to Habitat in the future, Mayor Lisa Sulka said.