In a community where rental properties are hard to find, fewer moving trucks have been seen on local roads. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

The local housing market is on a collision course with local workers’ paychecks, and that’s a problem for Southern Beaufort County’s tourist industry.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “affordable housing is … housing on which the occupant is paying no more than 30% of gross income for housing costs, including utilities.”

According to the inventory on recently, there were 113 places to rent in zip code 29910. They ranged from studios to a four-bedroom house. Out of those listed, only one unit was available for less than $1,700 per month. Another 37 were priced at $2,100 or less.

“I make decent money and cannot afford the current rent increases. I have to move before my rent goes up,” said Jessica Snider, a chef. “I’m short-staffed where I work because nobody can afford to live here. It’s really sad. Everyone comes here to be waited on hand and foot, but when we are all priced out of homes and places to live, we will go elsewhere. I don’t want to leave but the way growth has been handled in this area means people like me who want to stay, cannot, because people who have the means are pricing us out. It’s really disheartening.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics gathers data annually from employers in every industry sector in the United States.

In 2021, average salaries were: waiters $20,010; fast food counter workers $26,060; chefs $56,920; bartenders $30,340; housekeepers $29,580; cashiers $26,770; and retail sales workers $30,060.

Even if someone could snag one of those $2,100 apartments, a cashier would have $125 left over each month for utilities, gas, food, car payment, etc.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do when there’s no one to wait. We’re not going to slow down on serving people, but the service will be slow. Eventually the small businesses are going to close, and it won’t be a tourist town anymore,” Snider said. She wants to buy a home because she wants to become part of the community, but it’s difficult. “I am paycheck to paycheck. It’s impossible to save when you’re pouring half of your income into your apartment.”

Robin Kaeding grew up on Hilton Head. She was living in Orlando and wanted to move back, but ended up in a one-bedroom for $1,200 in Savannah, utilities not included.

“It’s crazy to me that Bluffton is even more expensive than Hilton Head, and on top of the prices, there just aren’t that many choices in either place,” she said. “Prices are definitely the biggest obstacle. I’ve been looking for about four months. There’s one place in Bluffton that’s not too bad, but their wait list is until the end of fall, and that wasn’t going to work.”

She is moving to Hilton Head and will share an apartment with a friend, but it’s not her first choice.

“Roommates seem to be the only option if you want to rent an apartment on Hilton Head or in Bluffton,” Kaeding said.

The cost of living is a sticker shock to newcomers. Sallee Barnett was hired in December for a local job, and had three weeks to move with her cat from Evansville, Indiana, and find an apartment. She rented a room on Whitmarsh Island with a twice-daily, hour-long commute over the Talmadge Bridge. 

“I did that for about six months and found a little studio apartment in Bluffton for about $1,200 a month. Eventually I am going to buy and settle in, because everywhere I did look they wanted a high rent. There was a huge wait list, high pet fees,” Barnett said. “Coworkers say their rent is going up $200 to $300 because companies can charge that amount.”

Even for those who are long-time residents, the prospect of finding another place to rent is frightening. Heather Price, who works for the 14th Circuit Court, and runs the Bluffton Hilton Head Ask/Answer (original) Facebook page, has lived in the area since she was 11.

“I am sick to my stomach about what is happening. I would like to know how many corporations have bought up single-family homes and driven up the price of renting here,” Price said. “I have to work three jobs to pay rent here, and if anything happens to my rental, I will literally have to move away, like ‘away, away,’ as Jasper County schools are [terrible]. I am now priced out of buying – which I just tried to do.”

Price believes the future is bleak for many folks like her. “I lay awake at night scared, and I’m mad. Single mothers are being forced out. This is turning into an elitist town. But make no mistake. Small businesses are suffering because there is no one to man them, and they are leaving, too,” she said. “Diverse, quirky Bluffton is turning into white elitist USA, and the county/town is watching it happen.”

Price went to the University of South Carolina-Beaufort for a degree in human services and served as a paramedic in the county. She knows how important it is to live and serve in the community.

“College-educated people like teachers, police, etc., should be able to live where they work, and not have roommates. These people are grown professionals, not 19-year-old college students. People are living in hotels: teachers, workers, and others with children. All their stuff is in storage,” she said. “I’ve lived here almost my whole life, and I will have to move if my living situation changes. I love my job and am damn good at it. That would be so sad.”

For some long-time residents, the hunt for a local place is over. Tayloe Cook currently lives with his parents because rent is so high on Hilton Head Island. Cook made the decision about a year ago to move up to western North Carolina and in May bought 4.5 acres.

“The chamber has done a great job because they have extracted all the wealth they can out of Hilton Head, but in doing so – artists for instance – aren’t profit driven to make capital, and a lot of creative people don’t create stuff for money,” said Cook. “It’s hard when you have prices the way that they are, unless you’re making six figures a year. It’s kind of hard to live on Hilton Head, and that’s just to rent. You can’t even think about getting a house.”

A professional potter, Cook just finished a commissioned project of 350 pieces for the Hampton Inn in Cashiers, North Carolina, west of Brevard and Asheville, near his property.

“I’m not the exception to the rule. Very few of my friends have stayed here,” he said. “My parents live here, my brother lives here, so I’ll come back and visit, do the farmer’s market and other vendor opportunities,” Cook said, “but I am out of here.”

If apartment seekers think there ought to be more places available than they are seeing on rental websites, they’re right. Whole communities that once served renters were converted into condominiums, and are now hiding in plain sight.

“We have a number of communities that were developed with the purpose of being multifamily. On Hilton Head, a number of those were converted from apartments into condos in the early 2000s, and sold,” said Kevin Quat, president and chief solutions expert of AIM Real Estate Management Company. “When you convert to condos, you create a shadow leasing market, which means that while a lot of those units exist as long-term rentals, they’re not uniformly published. Currently on Hilton Head there are a few apartment communities such as Marshside, Shelter Cove, Aquatera and Cedar Wells. There also used to be Indigo Run, Summer House and Summerfield. Just right there are 1,000 units that are now condos and part of the shadow market.”

The conversions, though, aren’t the real problem, said Quat.

“I think from the get-go, we probably didn’t have enough long-term rental housing units based on the number of workforce, young professionals, people who maybe aren’t buyers. Add to that the fact that it’s the resort market,” Quat said. “A condo can be long-term or short-term rental, or used as a second home. We have so many second-home owners who don’t rent, and come here with their families. Those properties that are owned by investors, they can make twice the amount of revenue – if done properly – on the short-term side to vacationers and potentially use it themselves, than they can on the long-term side.”

There was a “however” to the choice of short-term over long-term rentals.

“What a lot of investors don’t realize is just because the gross revenue of an asset is larger, short-term costs a lot more to operate. A two-bedroom condo that would rent today for $2,000 a month on the long-term side has the same fixed costs as far as dues, taxes, insurance. The tenant will typically pay all utilities,” he said.

With short-term rentals, the property owner pays not only the utilities, but property management costs to clean and maintain, and provide internet, cable TV – all the expected resort amenities.

“When you run that kind of model, unless you have almost no vacancy, your net take-away would be better as a long-term play than a short-term play,” said Quat. “And a lot of investors don’t realize that because they think ‘Oh, well, let’s look at a short-term run, and then we can use it,’ that actually is not really a solid plan, given the fact that the time you want to use it is often the time that it’ll generate the most revenue.”

Even when there are rental properties on the market, Quat noted that the competition is intense. His company has 200 long-term rentals on the market, and in the past 30 days there were 545 inquiries from 394 people for 31 properties, including storage units. Some submitted inquiries for multiple properties. There were 55 applications, 25 showings – which are a requirement by Quat’s company before any paperwork is finalized, 15 applications approved, and seven converted into renters.

Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton, a life-long resident and dedicated advocate for creating affordable housing for Bluffton’s workers, said “That is what we would call the problem, and you know that the solution falls back into the hands of the municipalities or the government.”

Hamilton attended a meeting July 26 with Southern Lowcountry Regional Board to try to establish criteria for the town’s housing trust fund, and to give guidance on how to move forward with affordable housing in the region.

The SoLoCo board is a regional think tank that helps identify common Southern Lowcountry problems and opportunities regardless of municipal or county boundaries. The board then proposes action plans to the relevant councils.

“The Town of Bluffton has purchased some property where we’ve been in negotiation with a contractor to build some units,” Hamilton said. “There’s a lot that has happened within the last two years, COVID being one and the cost of construction being the other. Because of some other shipping delays as well, we haven’t quite gotten to the place where we feel like we can do as much as we’d like to do in the first round, but we have a project that is hopefully going to be under contract that we can sign off on before the next council meeting Aug. 9, and get started on Buck Island Road.”

That project will have 12 to 14 units. There are two other properties, one of which he said could probably go up to 70 units and the other, six to eight units.

Hamilton added that the town will not be going into the realty business.

“We won’t be in the business of property management. Whoever we partner with will be responsible to manage the sales as well as the rental components,” said Hamilton. “Our land acquisition program that we established allowed us to purchase these properties, and we’re going to continue this land acquisition component, and look for other opportunities to buy properties so that we can incentivize developers.”

He added that there just isn’t the supply available to fill the demand for housing.

“I truly believe that Bluffton leaders are serious about affordable housing, and our affordable housing committee has that same ambition: that we want to move the needle again. Our first and only means that we had to address affordable housing was the Wharf Street development, and that was something that we’re still proud of,” Hamilton noted.

The Wharf Street Redevelopment Project consisted of six affordable, energy-efficient cottages built on more than a half-acre of land between Wharf and Roberson streets in Old Town. They were made available to families with household incomes less than 80% of the Beaufort County median income and who met other eligibility requirements.

The $1.2 million project garnered several prestigious national and state awards.

“Many folks said that was something we shouldn’t have done but it was a success, and that was the reason why others have taken on or at least carried on the affordable housing conversation,” said Hamilton. “Don’t get me wrong, but conversation is not enough. We’ve been doing that for the past 30 years, but the political will is definitely in Bluffton, and SoLoCo is fully engaged in trying to make this come to fruition throughout the region.”

He said affordable housing advocates need to continue challenging the area’s leaders, reminding them why it’s important to have affordable housing components.

“It’s so our community can have the citizens being able to live, work and play in their same community,” Hamilton said, “and be inclusive to all citizens.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.