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Economic Development

All blog posts are written by Michael Lisle, Town of Summerville Economic Development Coordinator. 

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Dec 16

The 3 M’s of Affordable Housing: Multi-family, Modular, and the Missing Middle

Posted on December 16, 2019 at 1:26 PM by Mary Edwards

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) is prominent.

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 stakeholders.

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. 

Michael Lisle Town of Summerville Economic Development Coordinator