Area leaders seek solutions to affordable housing shortage

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RISING CONSTRUCTION COSTS, REAL ESTATE PRICES AND CONSTRUCTION-RELATED FEES MAKE IT DIFFICULT FOR DEVELOPERS TO BUILD AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN BLUFFTON AND HILTON HEAD ISLAND.

The lack of affordable housing, combined with a lack of public transportation, means businesses are unable to fill positions because it’s too expensive for low- to moderate-income families to live in the area.

That portion of the population is vital to sustaining the community. They serve residents and visitors — building homes, cleaning villas, serving food, protecting citizens and educating children.

But more than that, said Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton, who also is the chairman of the town’s Affordable Housing Committee, the community should be concerned about the quality of life for these families.

“Those who want to live and work here should be able to have the ability to do so,” he said, adding that community leaders and elected officials have to work together to solve the problem.

Hamilton said town of Bluffton staff members are working diligently to give Town Council some direction, and the council will discuss ideas in early October.

Hamilton said the six houses built as part of the Wharf Street Redevelopment Project, which offered affordable cottages to low- and moderate-income families in Old Town Bluffton, only scratched the surface of the housing problem.

The Bluffton Home Series project offers low-income residents the opportunity to purchase new prefabricated modular homes. However, no one has taken advantage of the program since it began more than three years ago, possibly because it is only available to people who own their own property.

Hamilton said the town of Bluffton offers incentives, such as funding for infrastructure and a reduction in fees, to builders who include affordable housing units in their developments.

The Town of Hilton Head Island has also offered incentives to developers, such as increasing density for those who build affordable housing units, but Marcy Benson, the town’s senior grants administrator, said it has been difficult to get anyone interested.

Benson said the Moderate Income Housing Program resulted in several projects, including the Summerfield development off Spanish Wells Road, but after the housing crisis in 2007, no other developers wanted to participate. Benson said the developer who did get involved had a difficult time finding qualified applicants and would-be residents willing to adhere to the deed restrictions. The program was repealed that same year, and nothing has yet replaced it.

A few years ago, the town donated 14 acres of land off Marshland Road to Hilton Head Regional Habitat for Humanity, which helped some low-income families on the island. But housing problems persist, and the community is starting to feel the effects.

Town of Hilton Head planning and special projects manager Jennifer Ray said workforce availability is one of Hilton Head Island Town Council’s 2017 priorities, but pointed out the issue is about more than just affordable housing.

“Town Council’s priority is not just the housing component,” she said. “It’s having access to skilled labor and being able to get them to their jobs on the island. So that includes both housing and transportation. It’s a little bit broader than just building below-market-rate apartments.”

Town Council’s Public Planning Committee, led by David Ames, recently hosted a forum on workforce housing. Attendees offered several suggestions, including using restrictive covenants to allow bonus density, creating a floating zone, donating town-owned land, waiving or reimbursing impact fees, appointing a housing director, controlling land costs, creating land lease opportunities and allowing additional building height. 

Ames said the town will consider those recommendations and conduct a comprehensive market study to determine where the greatest needs are in the community.

“Most people think of affordable housing as serving just one classification of workers or incomes, and that’s not the case,” he said. “It goes from people who are struggling at a very low salary to people who have a decent salary but can’t find housing in the community where they’re working.”

Ames said there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. People need slightly different housing options and can afford different rents or mortgages.

“We, as a community, have to understand what that looks like,” Ames said. “Then we can attack how we have the highest impact.”