One of the greatest quality-of-life challenges currently
facing the Charleston region is the lack of affordable housing. This issue
isn’t unique to our area — it’s playing out in communities across our state and
nation, particularly in places where the service economy (especially food and beverage)
The service sector represents a significant portion of the
Charleston-area economy, yet workers employed in this sector are forced to live
further and further away from their employment due to rapidly rising housing
costs. Outlying municipalities such as Summerville frequently become the “last
frontier” in the battle for affordability, as these workers attempt to balance
the need for affordable housing with an ever-increasing commute time.
So how do we find the unicorn — the space where affordability
and distance intersect? It’s important to note that there is no magic bullet
here. There are too many variables at play for a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, there are strategies and opportunities we must be aware of that show
promise in helping to alleviate the problem.
The first is to consider increasing density through
multi-family housing — specifically, low-rise apartment buildings — in those zoning
areas where there are no restrictions on density (in Summerville’s case, areas
zoned MF-R, or Multi-Family Residential). Increasing density in this way is an
important step in pursuing affordability. Reducing development costs by
reducing the cost of property acquisition improves the bottom line for all
The law of supply and demand tells us that if supply is
limited and demand increases, prices will follow suit. As housing supply
increases to meet demand through the generation of multi-family units, prices
will generally fall as the system seeks equilibrium. It’s important to note,
though, that density isn’t a guaranteed solution.
Another benefit of adding multi-family housing units,
particularly as we look at both the commercial and residential evolution of our
population centers in places like Downtown, Oakbrook, and (potentially)
Knightsville, is that they support walkability. Walkability is an important
element of consideration as younger people (particularly millennials and Gen Z)
make decisions about where to live. In fact, over 70% of millennials rank
walkability as the most important factor in their decision-making process.
A second strategy for creating more affordable housing is to
increase the presence and acceptance of modern modular housing. The application
of technology in housing construction has made prefab housing into quality
workmanship, just as technology has done for many other industries
(automobiles, solar panels, and wind farms, just to cite a few examples).
Thanks to these technological advances, modular homes no longer evoke images of
trailer parks and “kit” homes.
In Summerville, modular homes are allowed in all residential
zoning areas, and while I’m not suggesting flooding the historic district with
them, there are opportunities to utilize modular homes within Town limits to
meet the demand for detached single-family housing in a less expensive way. You
can read a thought-provoking piece on the impact of modern modular housing on
the affordability issue here.
The final approach to look at is the redevelopment of what
has been termed “missing middle”
housing. The phrase refers to styles of housing that were popular in the
pre-World War II era, but that have largely disappeared in the intervening
decades. It generally means a range of multi-unit or
clustered housing types, compatible in scale with detached single-family homes,
that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.
Types of missing middle housing
includes duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments, bungalow courts, townhomes,
live/work units, and multiplexes. These buildings, which are permissible in our
residential districts (N-R and MF-R zoning areas where density is not a
factor), as well as our mixed-use and suburban districts, have the benefit of
offering an array of price points to address the mismatch between currently
available housing stock and income levels among our citizens. (For more
information on our Unified Development Ordinance, which defines the Town’s
zoning areas, look here.)
An added benefit is that they provide
“gentle density,” providing densification at a more moderate pace than
traditional multi-family housing (see pieces on gentle density by Strong
Towns and the Brookings
Institution). Additionally, live/work units offer
improvements for traffic congestion by reducing the daily commute to trips up
and down the stairs.
The point of this post isn’t to suggest that solving our
affordable housing crisis will be easy, or that there is a single answer (or
small group of answers) to alleviate the problem. But there are strategies for
addressing it, if we’re willing to work at it creatively and purposefully. Our
desire to do so should be driven by the fact that our current situation is
unsustainable in both the near and long term and by the answer to a simple
question: What happens if we do nothing? The cost of inaction is untenable.
Town of Summerville Economic Development Coordinator