Affordable housing for Charleston seniors converting to workforce housing, pricing out elderly

Bobby Cherry and his wife moved into the Grand Oak Senior Living complex in West Ashley 10 months ago, after their home on Wadmalaw Island burned down.

Cherry, 64, sat on the small balcony of his first-floor apartment watching a bruised sky that had been threatening rain all evening. He said their move to Grand Oak was a difficult transition in practically every way — emotionally, financially and logistically — but it was one of the few places they could afford.

If he had known they’d have to pack up and move again so soon, he said he would have never signed the lease last year. His wife is terminally ill, so he wanted her to be able to live whatever time she has left in one place, without the stress of another move.

Along with all Grand Oak’s other residents, Cherry was notified in July that the property at 1830 Magwood Drive is being converted from a low-income senior living facility to a workforce housing complex over the next three years. For most of the elderly people living there, that means they’ll be priced out of Grand Oaks in 2021.

“I would have never moved here, because I knew I couldn’t afford that,” Cherry said. “It took a lot of struggle to get here, and now I’ve got to struggle to get back out.”

A letter offers incentives for residents at Grand Oak Apartments in West Ashley if they move out in the next few months on Tuesday, August 14, 2018. Lauren Petracca/ Staff

While new luxury apartments are rising throughout the region, low and moderately priced housing is disappearing, making it difficult for people on a tight budget to find a place they can afford. For seniors such as the Cherries, who live solely on Social Security checks, the Charleston housing market is especially daunting.

Some residents of Grand Oak are older than 90. Many have health conditions that prevent them from driving or walking on their own. Some have cancer. Others have no family in the area.

“Some people here can’t even go get groceries,” Cherry said.

The property owner says the conversion is a necessary step to keep the property in a livable condition, and that nobody will be kicked out with nowhere else to go.

Annette Umphlet sweeps the stairs outside of her apartment building at Grand Oak Apartments in West Ashley on Tuesday, August 14, 2018. Umphlet said she has to clean up after the workers who are remodeling the apartment or else it will get tracked into her apartment. Lauren Petracca/ Staff

The Humanities Foundation, a nonprofit housing developer based in Mount Pleasant, built Grand Oak in 1998 with Low Income Housing Tax Credits. The federal financing program gives companies the option of investing in affordable housing projects in exchange for tax breaks.

The program is by far the largest driver of affordable housing developments in the United States and in South Carolina, but it comes with a catch. Tax credit properties are only required to remain affordable for 30 years, and the program allows owners in many cases to get out of the restrictions after 15 years if they attempt to sell the property and it isn’t sold.

Grand Oak, which opened in 2000, is the Humanity Foundation’s oldest property, according to Executive Director Tracy Doran. The price range was set for people earning 50 to 60 percent of the area’s median income, which Doran said hasn’t generated enough revenue to keep maintaining the aging property.

“The rents barely cover operations. … Capital improvements like new roofs, the HVAC systems — you know, all the things that start to break and need to be replaced — there isn’t money for that,” she said. “We have to be smart about how we manage our portfolio.”

Cynthia Gerideau is pictured outside of her apartment at Grand Oak Apartments in West Ashley on Tuesday, August 14, 2018. Lauren Petracca/ Staff

Grand Oaks didn’t attract any buyers when it was listed for sale last year, so the nonprofit is legally allowed to start charging market-rate rents in three years.

Doran said the plan is to keep the property affordable, although not necessarily for all the people currently living there.

Converting it to workforce housing will bring up the income threshold to 80 percent, which means single residents will have to earn at least $41,750 to qualify to live there. The higher rents will help pay for the property’s renovation. Exterior work, including roof replacements and siding repairs, has already begun.

Federal law requires owners to give tenants of tax credit properties three years to relocate if they can’t afford the higher rent.

Doran said the organization is taking extra steps to make it easier for the Grand Oak tenants who ultimately will have to move.

After hearing many of their concerns, a counselor was appointed last week to help tenants with housing searches and application processes. Grand Oak residents are being offered first priority at other residences in the foundation’s portfolio, including Grand View and The Shires, both in West Ashley.

“The market for affordable housing is tight, we all know that. But this is a three-year process,” Doran said. “We are not going to put them into a homeless situation or anything like that.”

Charleston City Councilman Kevin Shealy, who represents that part of West Ashley, said he plans to meet with residents of the apartment community soon, but he couldn’t say when.

“I want to find solutions for them,” he said.

Of the 28 properties the Humanities Foundation owns, Grand Oak is the first that has been released early from its original affordability requirement.

Two others in Charleston are doing the same, Rutledge Place Apartments and The Palace Apartments, which have different owners.

Almost 700 tax credit properties have been built in South Carolina since 1988, with 35 in Charleston, according The State Housing Finance and Development Authority. In the past 11 years, 35 across the state have been released early from the affordability requirement.

The trend doesn’t seem to be on the uptick, although that might change in years to come.

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