Most people who took a City of Greenville survey on affordable housing say more of it is needed, but few want it in their neighborhood.
That shows one of the challenges the city faces in dealing with a housing situation that includes gentrification pressures near downtown, a shortage of low-cost units, an inequitable distribution of affordable units and down-ladder pressures due to a shortage of high-end rentals, especially downtown, that reduces the supply and increases the cost of units for those making less money.
In a survey completed in conjunction with a study completed by Alexandria, Va.-based urban planning and neighborhood development consulting firm CZB LLC, 87 percent of the 1,130 respondents said they thought Greenville had an affordable housing problem.
However, when asked if they would welcome affordable housing in their neighborhood, only 32 percent said they would be okay with housing for seniors, and just 9 percent said they’d accept a housing development with 10 or more units.
Greenville’s lowest-cost rental units, those with rents under $500, are heavily concentrated on the city’s west side and east of downtown, including the Nicholtown neighborhood. Those areas have 1 1/2 times their share of these units than they would if low-cost units were evenly distributed across the city.
Continuing to have disproportionate concentration of low-cost units will lead some parts of the city to suffer economically, said Charles Buki, CZB principal. “If the city were to no longer have employers that needed low-wage employees, this would not be an issue, but downtown — and other areas of Greenville as well — absolutely hinge on a strong service sector and thus on a viably housed low-wage labor pool,” he said.
But in the past, efforts to put affordable housing in areas other than West Greenville and east of downtown have met stiff resistance.
Back in 2010, Augusta Street area residents protested an apartment development next to Augusta Heights Baptist Church, saying it did not comply with the city’s comprehensive plan and guidelines for multifamily housing. Traffic was also a concern. The project was then scaled down from 48 apartments to 37. Today, the apartments serve as workforce housing for households earning below 60 percent of the city’s median income, or $38,100 for a family of four.
About the same time, plans for Brookside Gardens, a 55-unit low-income apartment complex for seniors off Wade Hampton Boulevard, drew the ire of nearby residents who raised concerns over having low-income residents in their neighborhood, the potential traffic and the scale of the building.
Ginny Stroud, Greenville’s community development administrator, said the key to being able to spread affordable housing throughout the city is working with the neighbors to ensure good design and that the property is well-managed and well-maintained.
“As Augusta Heights and Brookside Gardens were built and occupied, those developments became assets to the community,” she said. “Some who were opposed to those developments are no longer in opposition to what was built. I think they dispel some of the myths that go with affordable housing. They raised the bar on design.”
CZB recommended Greenville use $2 million of its budget surplus to help establish a Greenville Housing Trust Fund that would begin to address in the short term the shortage of affordable housing in the city using a two-pronged strategy.
“Only local dollars can equalize the twin ambitions of ensuring a steady supply of affordable housing for working households and doing so in ways that strengthen the local economy and enrich community and neighborhood life,” Buki said.
If $1 million in philanthropic contributions were added to the city’s money to create a $3 million Greenville Housing Trust Fund, Buki would recommend $1.5 million be used to assist 300 to 500 households in renting upgraded units or improving homes that they currently own. The other $1.5 million would be used to acquire or improve up to 30 acres of vacant parcels in Greenville for future mixed-income housing.
“City Council, working with the philanthropic and corporate sectors, is in the position to harness the current — and possibly one-time — fund balance, along with other city sources, and to build substantial momentum on this critical issue,” the study said.
The city has a shortage of more than 2,500 affordable housing units, Buki said. It would cost about $220 million to catch up, he said.
“The catch-up number is a fairly significant number for a city your size,” he said. “You have eight low-income households for every one high-income household.”
One problem is that since 2000, the number and percentage of Greenville renters with incomes below $20,000 (those who can afford rents of up to $500 per month) and incomes between $20,000 and $24,999 (those who can afford rents closer to $650 per month) has held steady, the study found. But the number of rentals going for $650 or less has declined. In 2014, there were 2,522 more low-income households than available low-cost rentals in Greenville.
The other problem is the lack of higher-end rental units, especially near downtown. Those households are forced to rent down the housing ladder, which makes it more difficult for lower-income households to find quality affordable housing.
“So we’re investing to not get further behind?” Councilman David Sudduth asked.
In addition, the median gross rent in downtown Greenville has increased 100 to 200 percent, while rents throughout Greenville have risen at least 15 percent.
“West of downtown feels the pressures,” he said.
Buki said that if near downtown neighborhoods continue to gentrify, valuable affordable housing will be lost and tomorrow’s low-wage workers — especially those employed by downtown businesses such as hotels and restaurants — will have to live further away from their jobs. Those longer commutes impose a cost on the city in terms of congestion and on employers in terms of lower productivity. Living further out, especially in areas that lack reliable transportation, impacts a low-income employee’s job stability as well.
At the other end, if good-quality rental and ownership options are not readily available to the more upwardly and geographically mobile members of Greenville’s well-educated workforce, the private sector will eventually struggle to retain and attract their most desirable employees.
In the long term, Greenville will have to revise its comprehensive plan and development codes, Buki said.