With so much talk in the past few years about the limited affordable housing options in Greenville, it came as a surprise to city leaders that a significant hurdle to meeting the area’s needs is actually finding people to fill the homes.
To be sure, the number of people seeking affordable housing in the area is significant. The problem was highlighted in a 2020 affordable housing gap analysis conducted by the Greenville Housing Fund, the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority and Thomas P. Miller and Associates.
The analysis found that the county is approximately 12,000 units short to meet demand, with 35,000 residents earning less than $30,513, the wage needed to afford rent on an average two-bedroom house in the county.
“Greenville was in the top 10 metro areas that experienced the most growth for cost-burdened rental households,” the analysis found.
But although the need is clear, the complicated process by which local stakeholders can put people in those homes typically leads to long delays, often a year or longer, according to Greenville City Councilwoman Dorothy Dowe.
What’s more, unlike market-rate homes, which can be spec-built and sold later, so-called “affordable” homes can’t even be built until a buyer is lined up, due to financing requirements.
“Before a developer can break ground, they have to have the financing in place to build the homes,” Dowe said. “And before they can get the financing, they have to have a name on the lot.”
By far, the most complicated piece of the puzzle is the financing, Dowe added.
“Not to use an overly random analogy, but it’s like a Big Mac: layers and layers of financing,” she said.
Random as it might sound, the Big Mac analogy holds true — up to a point. Like a Big Mac, the financing for affordable housing is a combination of different financial ingredients layered upon each other, with funds coming from the federal government, the county, the city, advocacy groups, banks and/or developers themselves.
But unlike a Big Mac, the recipe is often different with every new project.
“All that complexity is why you can’t just rubber stamp a bunch of affordable units,” Dowe said. “Especially with federal funding, as soon as you get that, you have to follow HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) guidelines.”
Beyond the federal requirements, common sense drives the city’s desire to be careful when it comes to determining who will live in affordable units. The last thing city leaders want is for someone to move into an affordable home for which that they aren’t capable of sustaining the ability to pay.
“We want to avoid people getting foreclosed on,” Dowe said, “because that’s a scar for life.”
This leads to a tricky conundrum that is tying the hands of even the most philanthropical of developers, those who are intent on building affordable units but are unable to get enough candidates to begin construction.
To help find the right candidates, local groups are now working to educate communities that are in the most need for affordable housing options.
“What we’re finding is an overwhelming number of people want to become homeowners, but there’s a gap between wanting and actually being prepared to become a homeowner,” said Alecia Brewster, program director with Sustaining Way, an interfaith nonprofit that works to create a sustainable community and environment.
Sustaining Way has been holding regular monthly meetings — held via Zoom, for now — that aim to walk community members through the nitty-gritty, months-long process of becoming a homeowner.
“Home buying is not something to be taken lightly,” said Martin Watson of the Greenville County Human Relations Commission, which partners with Sustaining Way.
Watson recently led a seminar called “Pathway to Home Ownership,” which covered broad topics like budgeting, credit, mortgage math, loan types and the individuals involved in the home-buying process, as well as highly detailed specifics about life as a homeowner so that candidates are not blindsided by unexpected challenges once the home is purchased.
But for her part, Brewster said the greatest challenge to the program’s success comes not from the lack of information, but rather the difficulty in reaching the people who need the information the most.
“Getting communications out has been kind of slow, and especially with the limitations of hosting these online due to the pandemic, it can be tough,” Brewster said. “We want to make sure we give the importance and the weight to these that it really is. Our goal right now is to approach this like we’ve always done: at the grassroots, community level.
“Our team is small,” she added, “but we know there are opportunities out there to make a real impact.”