On a quiet street in Old Town, between the Bluffton Oyster Factory and the First Zion Baptist Church, a half-dozen small, eco-minded homes make up the Wharf Street Redevelopment Project. The addition to the surrounding neighborhood earned the town the Palmetto Award for the most outstanding Affordable Housing Project in the state in 2012.

A mile away on a 1.78-acre site at 1095 May River Road is another town-owned property where 12 more affordable homes will be built under a new public-private partnership with developer Workforce State of Mind LLC.

The land was purchased in 2018 for $263,000 for the sole purpose of using it for affordable housing. Proposals seeking a development partner went out in 2020 and the agreement was signed this past August.

“We’re trying to get people into home ownership,” said Town Manager Stephen Steese. “One of the reasons that we wanted to get a public-private partnership with this, is we wanted to make sure that what gets built looks no different than anything else throughout our entire community. … This has been an issue that we’ve been trying to work towards for a decade.”

Under the town council’s direction, development ordinances have been amended that require affordable housing as part of amended or new development agreements that come into the town. New agreements require 20% of the residential units to be affordable.

Under the partnership agreement, the town donates the land and will reimburse the developer for the planning, permitting, design and infrastructure costs. This will reduce the overall cost of the homes.

“The town has been setting money aside every year for 12 to 15 years to do affordable housing projects, so that will come out of the town’s budget,” Steese said. “The first phase, which is the architectural and engineering – the whole design – we’re paying for that 100%.”

Steese said that if something happened where the original developer could not finish the job, the town owns the plans and would then be able to hire a replacement.

According to the town’s press release on the project, the neighborhood will be protected by a 30-year affordability covenant, meaning the homes will be affordable and reserved for those who are income-qualified, regardless of market values, for 30 years.

Who meets the qualifications is based on the area median income as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“For 2022, the area median income (AMI) is $60,700 for one person,” said Steese. “If you are making $60,700 as a single person and we’re building a house that has 100% AMI restrictions on it, then you qualify to apply for that house. When you think about who falls within that, you’re talking about policemen, firefighters, teachers. Starting salaries for teachers just got a big bump, but they’re still at $48,000. You’re also talking about dispatchers, nurses, nursing assistants, town staff.”

HUD defines affordable housing as housing for which the occupant is paying no more than 30% of his or her gross income for housing costs, including utilities. The Area Median Income (AMI) helps define what “affordable” is, based on the median income of a specific region.

The 12 May River project homes will be split among three groups based on levels of AMI – 60%, 80% and 100%.

Beaufort County’s current AMI means the following:

• 60% is $41,640 for a two-person household, and $52,020 for a four-person household

• 80% is $55,500 for two, and $69,350 for four

• 100% is $76,480 for two, and $95,600 or four.

South Carolina State Representative Bill Herbkersman (Dist. 118) is one of the managing members of Workforce State of Mind LLC. He brought together what he called a “home team of people who really care about workforce housing.” One of them is Matt Lyle, another managing member, who owns Lyle Construction and custom builds homes throughout area.

“There’s Pierce Scott and Amanda Denmark with Pierce Scott Architects, and Dan Keefer of Witmer Jones Keefer LTD, who have all wanted to be a part of it forever. It’s all local players who understand the need and are doing anything they can to make it happen,” said Herbkersman. “I think it’s just a drop in the bucket but it gives people hope. People are seeing there’s finally movement. All of the players, especially the town, are going above and beyond. We’re finally realizing the fact that the American dream is almost out of reach. There are no starter homes now, and this is a good way to get families back in a starter home.”

Although the project is finally under way on paper, results won’t be visible for a while, said Steese.

“Our hope would be that once we get through what we’re considering Phase One – which is getting it through design, review, and getting ready to permit – that they start moving towards what we call Phase Two, which is horizontal improvements,” he said, describing those improvements as grading, sewer, water, smoothing and the like.

The design phase will follow and there will be progress toward construction. At that point, a conservative guess for completion might be less than two years.

“All the parties that are involved are trying to expedite it as fast as we can. We know there’s a need. We know we want to get it done as soon as we can. But I think 12 to 18 months would be a good estimate,” said Steese.

“And I hate to say the government works slow. We work deliberately because we want to make sure that since we are using taxpayer funds to move this project forward, that we have all our I’s dotted our T’s crossed, make sure we have our protections in play, our reviews in place and oversight, so we’re ready to go. We can make sure that everything’s done to our expectations,” Steese said.

Town Councilman Fred Hamilton said this is welcome progress.

“It’s one bite out of this elephant, and at least gives us the opportunity to provide the same quality of life to those who can’t afford it the same housing component that we anticipate building here in Bluffton,” he said. “This is the first domino. We have three other properties that we have set aside just for affordable housing. We have the land and a potential developer. We believe we have 70 units that we can provide within two other properties we have, and then there’s the property on Buckwalter that doesn’t have the infrastructure yet, with 2.5 acres earmarked for affordable housing as well.”

It has taken time to get affordable housing approved in Bluffton, but it is an issue that Hamilton, Steese, Herbkersman and others recognize as critical to Bluffton.

Hamilton also addressed another elephant – the one in the room that says “not in my backyard.”

“Sometimes, if you do this enough and you do this with sensitivity, you may change some people’s minds. It’s always good to say we hear you and we want you to hear us as well. The message has to be we’re not trying to divide,” said Hamilton. “We’re trying to be inclusive because it’s a place where we all have to co-exist. That’s how Bluffton was established before development. You could have a million-dollar house and your neighbors had a mobile home. We still want to be a big little town.”

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