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From the Burbs to the Bridges

Jul 11, 2018 03:18PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson

By Chris Haire

For three weeks, one of the twin bridges connecting Mt. Pleasant to Daniel Island was closed following the discovery of a broken cable on the James D. Edwards Bridge taking commutters over the expansive Wando River.

The closure of the 1.5 mile concrete and cable structure came without warning, at least to commuters. Inspectors from the S.C. Department of Transportation had been monitoring the troubled bridge weekly for more than a year.

Over the course of the first few days, all traffic on I-526 from Mt. Pleasant to Daniel Island was brought to a slow crawl and directed to inconvenient routes that increased travels times dramatically, in some cases hours more.

By workweek two, SCDOT had opened up one lane of eastbound 526 to westbound traffic. It helped alleviate some of the congestion, stress, and anger of commuters—an anger that was somewhat satiated by several satirical Twitter accounts from the James Edwards Bridge itself. Even in bumper-to-bumper traffic, laughter is the best medicine.

Through it all, one message rang clear: Charleston’s labor force is increasingly dependent on interstate travel as more workers take residence in homes and apartments well away from the pricey environs of peninsula Charleston, and any roadway hiccups—big or small—put a spotlight on the paltry number of thoroughfares leading in and out of Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, and Daniel Island.

“I really hope that it’s a reminder for everyone in the region: we can’t take our eye off of infrastructure investment,” says Ian Scott, senior vice president of advocacy with the Charleston Metro Chamber.

According to Scott, Charleston’s infrastructure issues are radically different from those affecting cities like Atlanta or Greenville. “We aren’t going to create more land. We don’t have the choice to have expansive suburbs in every direction. We are waterbound,” he says.

And those waterways dictate where people live and how they get to work. “A remarkable number of people wake up and work in a different part of the region,” Scott says. “There are very few places where you aren’t crossing one river, if not two or three.”

Scott says that Mt. Pleasant and West Ashley are two of the worst offenders, with most residents working in other areas.

That commuting trend shows no signs of changing.

And for good reason: there’s a lack of homes.

“We know empirically we are not building enough housing units, regardless of price point, to meet the demand in the Charleston region,” Scott says. “We need about 7,500 new housing units per year. We’ve needed that number for a long time and will need that many each year until 2030.”
 
Scott adds that half of those units need to be affordable to a household making $52,000 a year. Such a house would be in the $175,000-$200,000 range, or roughly $1,200 a month in rent.

And it’s not just Charleston County that’s being affected. Dorchester and Berkeley are feeling the affordable-housing hit.

“It’s essentially an affordability problem for each one of our counties,” says Stephen C. Warner, vice president of Global Competitiveness for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. According to Warner, more than 90,000 households pay more than 30 percent of their income toward their house.

Warner says there’s a disconnect between where jobs are being created in the Lowcountry and where people live, and that includes all professions and income levels. While “the majority of that job growth has been in the Peninsula and the nexus of [interstates] 26 and 526,” Warner says, most residential growth is in Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

“We haven't built the housing near the jobs, and we haven’t built it at multiple price points,” he says. Warner adds that the region needs to adopt smart policies and practices to make sure housing is achievable for everyone.

And that everyone includes line cooks in Charleston’s thriving food and beverage industry, housekeepers in downtown’s tony hotels, doctors and nurses at MUSC, college professors at The Citadel and CofC, and the tech-savvy professionals in the city’s NoMo district.

When it comes to those higher up the socio-economic ladder, they’re gobbling up the housing on the peninsula that would normally go to lower-end workers.

“People who have the money to buy houses are encroaching down the market,” says Claire Curtis, co-chair of the housing steering committee for Charleston Area Justice Ministry. “That shrinks the stock for people as you go further down.”

Curtis believes that cities in the Lowcountry need to invest in housing funds, which would help pay for affordable housing. Charleston County voters recently approved a measure that would use $20 million to pay for affordable housing projects, an effort that would result in 800 new apartments, according to a Post and Courier report.

“If we can get more housing for people who make less than 50 percent, that frees up the costs for other housing,” Curtis says. “It incentivizes builders to build at the lower end.”

If things don’t change, there’s only so much further out commuters can move. Curtis says, “You can’t be living in Orangeburg and work in Charleston.”

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