CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – Sitting in front a small, private crowd Wednesday morning, the six candidates running for Charleston mayor answered questions about one of the city’s most critical problems: the affordable housing and homelessness crisis.
During the forum, hosted by non-profit organization One80 Place, the candidates took turns discussing how to they address the root causes of homelessness, ensure there was widespread availability of affordable housing, and how they would fund those efforts.
While there is not data available on the homeless population living in Charleston specifically, 324 people were recorded as being homeless in the Lowcountry on a single night in January, according to the 2022 South Carolina State of Homelessness Report.
All of the candidates said it was necessary to generate economic opportunities for individuals facing homelessness and provide them with wrap-around services that can address challenges that often accompany or contribute to housing insecurity.
“Most folks who are experiencing homelessness have some other issue going on either medical, mental, addiction, and so addressing those issues with each individual really makes a difference in being able to get them housed,” current mayor John Tecklenburg said, citing his administration’s work on the Hope Center in downtown Charleston.
One80 Place CEO Stacy Denaux said that while current affordable housing projects like the Archer School renovation and Meeting Street Housing Plan are good solutions, affordable housing is a growing problem that will require long-term solutions.
“We hope to hear real answers real solutions, solutions that have concrete plans behind them, solutions that are funded, it is nice to have a vision, it is important to have a dream, it is important to have something aspirations. But we need concrete solutions with real-world implication, real-world possibility, sooner rather than later,” Denaux said ahead of the event.
One of those solutions, according to Denaux, is the creation of additional affordable housing units across the city and each of the candidates shared plans on how they might accomplish that.
Debra Gammons suggested the city purchase vacant buildings to use for affordable housing.
“The city can use its constitutional power to purchase vacant buildings and use those as places for people without the resources or ability to have their own home,” she said.
The candidates were also asked how they would handle the many complexities involved in the Chaleston housing crisis on of which moderator Forrest Alton said was “historical injustices that go back generations.”
Black or African American people make up about 20% of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census data, yet represent more than half of the homeless population.
“This was a policy objective to displace African American residents and replace them with White residents…so what we’re dealing with now [are] the vestiges of that former policy practice,” candidate Mika Gadsden said. “We need to reprioritize making housing accessible for everyone and I believe that starts with a social housing authority which also gets in the mind frame of not just building single family homes but more community-driven housing solutions.”
When asked about the impacts of urban renewal, also known as gentrification, on the availability and affordability of housing within the city, Clay Middleton said establishing first right of refusal would be a step toward ensuring equitable economic development.
“If you have that individual that’s living in homes now and the owner decides to sell that they have to offer that home ownership to that person that lives there,” he said. “Then a trusted nonprofit could buy that home and it could still be affordable or maybe that family could do the same thing.”
William Cogswell suggested implementing a property tax cap on longtime owner-occupied homes, particularly in lower income neighborhoods.
“When property taxes all around, historically by neighborhoods, go up, they’re priced out,” he said. “I think that’s a very pragmatic way of moving forward.”
Lastly, the candidates were asked how they would secure and allocate the necessary funding to support their plans.
“Our tourism industry has had a wonderful impact economically on our community but the negative impact of that has created this issue that we’re dealing with,” Peter Shahid said. “We get to use a percentage of that money [hospitality and accommodations tax] that comes in but freeing up that money more provides a very available avenue or sources of income and money to address and help fund.”
And while some of the candidates offered specifics, Denaux said she would have liked to hear more concrete answers on funding.
“A couple of candidates had some specifics funding streams they listed, but really studying the issue…some of the ideas might not be applicable… so really doing that research and understanding these are the funding streams, these are the resources that we could actually bring to bear on this issue,” she said.
Those interested in hearing more of the candidates’ answers can click here to watch the full forum.