James McGrath, owner of Tiny Homes of Hilton Head, gestures to lumber he salvaged from Hurricane Matthew. He said his focus is to provide affordable housing by using reclaimed materials PHOTO BY GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

More than one-third – 35.7 percent – of Beaufort County’s workforce commutes to their jobs from somewhere else. That was according to the 2010 U.S. Census, as reported to the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce.

The report indicated that most of those commuters come from Jasper, Hampton, Chatham and Colleton counties and some travel from as far as Allendale County – more than 90 minutes away.

A shortage of employment opportunities closer to their home brings most of those workers to southern Beaufort County, where hospitality and skilled labor jobs are plentiful, while lack of affordable housing here forces workers to make those long commutes.

They can’t find work where they live, and they can’t afford to live where they find work. It’s a conundrum that has grown steadily in recent years.

Angela Childers, Beaufort Housing Authority executive director, says the biggest challenge is getting citizens and officials to realize how great a need there is for affordable housing.

“There is a housing complex going in in Yemassee, and I’m sure that is due to the port coming in,” Childers said.

The port is the Jasper Ocean Terminal along the Savannah River in Jasper County. When service industry businesses supporting the port start to open, the long-distance commuters are likely to look for jobs closer to home.

Along with finding affordable housing, “Once the service industry workers find employment out there, they’re not going to drive an hour or two to come into Beaufort County for $7.25 an hour,” Childers said. “It’s going to drive prices up because employers are going to have to pay more in wages to bring workers in.”

Childers said she and other local government agencies have given presentations and discussed the need with county officials. Some progress has been made.

“[Beaufort County is] in the process of contracting for a comprehensive housing needs assessments survey that will include the entire county, including the municipalities,” Childers said.

The most current survey was dated 2013 and did not include the municipalities of Bluffton, Hilton Head and Beaufort. Childers said the new assessment will show what is needed and where.

Small steps with tiny homes

James McGrath is one business owner who is trying to alleviate the housing problem, of which he is well aware.

McGrath, owner of McGrath Custom Hardwoods and Tiny Homes of Hilton Head, found himself in need of tree men and carpenters when he began reclaiming trees downed by Hurricane Matthew. He ended up bringing in three men he knew from Connecticut.

“I couldn’t find any local employees because there is so little affordable housing,” he said. “Luckily, [these workers] were able to get a three-month rental in Shipyard [on Hilton Head Island].”

The three – a schoolteacher, a chef and a former Army medic training to be an ER trauma surgeon – are among the mostly veteran workforce at the Tiny Homes of Hilton Head warehouse.

“Our main focus is giving people an affordable place to live by keeping the wood we have, milling it at a discount rate, selling it at a discount rate and giving them a luxury product for a price that anyone can afford,” McGrath said.

He’s currently completing the company’s first mobile tiny home, built almost entirely from reclaimed and refurbished materials, from the trailer frame up.

It is so sturdy, McGrath said, that during Hurricane Matthew the only thing that flew off was a piece of tin that had not been secured to the roof.

“We’re going to give buyers a luxury product with dirt cheap price,” he said. “We take donations of wood, brand new building materials people are giving away, anything. Everything we buy is local except for the trailers.”

Increasing the housing inventory to include workers at all levels of the community will not only alleviate the pressure put on those who have to travel from as far away as Colleton and Hampton counties but also will help make Beaufort County a better place to live, said Fred Leyda, the county’s director of Human Services.

“You don’t want to have people who are your technicians and nurses and teachers living outside of your community,” Leyda said.

Having a workforce that lives and works in a community has an impact on how people perform, he said, and on their family life.

“How we are keeping our best and brightest in the community is important,” Leyda said. “A successful community integrates all of its workforce within the community.”

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