Seven local officials commit to help fix Charleston’s affordable housing crisis at annual CAJM gathering

"There’s still a lot of people who didn’t show up, and a lot of work to be done."
Congregants and members take their seats at the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s annual Nehemiah Action gathering on April 30, 2018.

Seven representatives from various Lowcountry governments agreed to join a regional housing coalition and to help establish a regional housing trust fund at the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s annual Nehemiah Action gathering Monday night.

Nehemiah Action is arguably the largest gathering of policy-driven activists in the Charleston area. The rules of engaging with elected officials who show up to the meeting are created and enforced by the 27-member group to maximize clarity. They are asked yes or no questions and given 30 seconds to respond, after which their microphone is cut off.

"Our officials spend hours negotiating behind closed doors," said Claire Curtis of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue in downtown Charleston. "The Nehemiah action opens those doors."

Last night’s event was not as adversarial as the rules, or previous meetings, might suggest. Unlike the more contentious and emotional race-based issues that CAJM has tackled in the past, the affordable housing crisis is an issue felt by everyone, and one that is supported by staggering statistics.

A quarter of Charleston-area renters, about 21,800 households, spend more than half their income on rent, according to a study by Harvard University’s Joint Center of Housing Studies. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that households spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utility in order to afford other basic necessities. North Charleston, where the average person’s income trails Charleston’s by $16,000 a year, is now the highest eviction market in the country. Additionally, CAJM’s research, conducted between the group’s Community Problems Assembly in November and last night, found that the average Charleston renter would need to earn nearly $20 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Charleston County, much higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

"Greater Charleston is a tale of two cities," said Claudette Hart of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood of Charleston. "[Tourists] can sulk in Charleston’s culture, eat at fine restaurants, and relax. On the other hand, Charleston is a difficult place to live."

CAJM’s proposed Housing Action Plan included the creation of a Regional Housing Coalition that will meet within 75 days to help write a proposal for a Regional Housing Trust Fund to be introduced at various local chambers. After that, officials are expected to champion dedicated sources of funding for the trust fund and report any progress at the next large CAJM gathering in November. The activist group argued that the existing South Carolina Community Loan Fund does not receive an adequate funding stream, and that the $20 million affordable housing bond passed in November by Charleston city voters does not do enough to solve the crisis. It is expected to bring 800 affordable housing units to the city. However, there are 211,000 who spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing in the Charleston area.

The regional trust fund idea is borrowed from cities like Milwaukee, which have seen success in the implementation of their own funds.

Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in downtown Charleston speaks at the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s annual Nehemiah Action on April 30, 2018.

The area leaders in attendance were: Charleston City Council members Carol Jackson, James Lewis, William Dudley Gregorie, and Keith Waring; Charleston County Council chair Vic Rawl; North Charleston City Council member Mike Brown, Jr.; and Mt. Pleasant Council member Guang Whitley.

They all agreed to help the activist group fulfill its goals.

Charleston City Council member William Dudley Gregorie agreed to support the CAJM’s housing action plan, though he initially backed away from joining any sort of committee or council.

"What it means is: I’m not looking for work, but I will assist in any way I can," he said.

After pressure from one of the moderators, Gregorie eventually relented and agreed to join the Regional Housing coalition to riotous applause from the nearly-packed sanctuary.

Charleston City Council member James Lewis defended the city’s efforts thus far.

"The city has produced over 10,000 affordable housing units in the last 15 to 20 years," he said. "We have a plan to produce 1,300 more units in the next three to five years."

CAJM spokesperson Treva Williams stressed that the group sent invitations out in December, and that last night’s questions were also sent in advance. City spokesperson Jack O’Toole told CP that Mayor Tecklenburg would be out of town with his family on Monday night. It is unclear where the mayor went, but O’Toole said he was expected back at City Hall by Tuesday morning.

"The officials who came were clearly well prepared in terms of what we were asking for," said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. "There’s still a lot of people who didn’t show up, and a lot of work to be done."

Despite the positive responses, CAJM leaders urged the crowd to keep the pressure on by showing up to Council meetings and actively participating in their cities’ decision-making process.

"The most important thing is always to show up at those Council meetings, whether its your local city or town or County Council meetings, to continue the momentum behind the issue and to continue to support those officials who have given us their support," Alexander said.

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