Greenville city officials seek more aggressive funding for 'urgent' affordable housing need

Under pressure to temper Greenville's gentrification, city officials are pursuing measures that would pour millions of dollars into local affordable housing efforts.

That includes frontloading the city's money for affordable housing, a shorter-term solution to address what Greenville Housing Fund director Bryan Brown called "the urgent moment of now," and supporting a Statehouse bill that would allow Greenville to use its tourism taxes for workforce housing.

The measures come as Greenville faces a staggering Black population loss citywide, as revealed in a Furman University study in partnership with The Greenville News.

"We are in the urgent moment of now when it comes to affordable housing needs in our community," Brown told City Council Monday night.

Greenville needs more affordable housing We talked to experts and officials about solutions.

A view of Green Avenue and Nelson Street.
A view of Green Avenue and Nelson Street.

Greenville Housing Fund will leverage existing money to fund more affordable housing

Affordable housing is broadly defined as housing that doesn't account for more than a third of a person's monthly income.

The federal government defines affordable housing levels based on area median income. In the Greenville area, most recent estimates put that number at $77,200 for a family of four.

But that calculation isn't reliable, experts argue, since it doesn't factor in racial inequalities. The median household income for Black households is $27,397, roughly one-third the amount of the white population’s $76,928. That means what's often defined as affordable housing is still out of reach for many of the residents who need it most.

In efforts to change that, the Greenville Housing Fund will use the city's affordable housing budget, private equity and other resources to create a loan or bond program. The funding will let them leverage $33 million for affordable housing in the coming years, officials said.

Contrary to the city's video on social media, the measure itself is not a new municipal bond. The housing fund will frontload the money, then use the city's committed $2.5 million for affordable housing annually to repay it. That $2.5 million is subject to City Council's approval every budget year.

This measure means the housing fund will be flush with cash up-front instead of spreading out the funding over several years. They will also find ways to save on interest payments, Brown said.

"We are going to take the $2.5 million commitment, and we're going to amortize it," Brown said. "Twenty-three million dollars today is a lot more impactful than $2.5 million a year, over 12 years."

The housing fund will also take money in hand and combine it with money they anticipate they will raise. A projected $10 million will go to their neighborhood strategy, which is designed to deliver 200 single-family homes in the coming years that will be a mix of rental and home ownership.

"I want as many resources hitting the community as I can, and that's what this is really about," Brown said. "We have to deploy these dollars in these communities."

The larger pool of capital will allow the housing fund to deliver on the projects it has promised, such as the senior housing in Southernside near Unity Park, Brown said. Many developments are facing financial challenges now due to high interest rates and higher construction costs.

Mayor Knox White said the city fully supports the housing fund's efforts.

"Today is a real milestone," White said Monday night. "It's just a great thing."

Greenville's Black population loss unfolds across historic neighborhoods

For many of the city's neighborhoods, the money can't come soon enough.

Data recently published by Furman University detailed Greenville's wide racial-economic divide. The gap makes it nearly impossible for lower-income Black residents to compete in the bidding war for housing, especially in historic Black neighborhoods that are being gentrified.

The area needs roughly 20,000 more units of low-cost housing, according to a coalition of housing groups in the city and county.

The city is making efforts to address this need, including incentives for affordable housing in the new development code. Mayor Knox White has also promised the city will pass an affordable housing bond by the end of the year.

This accelerated funding is "an arrow in the quiver" and a "significant first step," councilmember at-large Russell Stall said Monday.

Hospitality tax bill would allow Greenville to help low-income renters access housing

Another long-term solution would empower Greenville to use its hospitality taxes to help pay for workforce and affordable housing.

That tax is levied on tourist-related items in the city, such as hotel rooms and restaurant meals. It can only be used for projects related to tourism under current state law, which includes projects like Falls Park, Unity Park, the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and city promotion and marketing.

Bill S0284 would change that state law. It is sponsored by two Republicans, Tom Davis of Beaufort and Ross Turner of Greenville, along with two Democrats, Darrell Jackson of Hopkins and John Scott of Columbia. The bill does not specifically define “affordable" or "workforce," instead leaving it up to the individual municipalities to define the terms. This means cities could fine-tune their own policies to address income needs across socio-economic levels.

White, a Republican, submitted a letter of support for the bill along with other South Carolina city officials.

Dorothy Dowe, a Democrat, has also been a vocal advocate, reaching out to the Greenville Democratic Party and Democratic Women of Greenville County to advocate for the bill among the area's Senate delegation. Dowe also reached out to interfaith groups like her church, Westminster Presbyterian Church and the GOAL Justice advocacy group to generate support, she said.

The change in law would mean the city would have another revenue stream to address housing needs, as well as greater flexibility with tourism funds, she said.

Another option? Using that money to fund a grant program that caters to workforce development, providing housing for students in job training at Greenville Tech, for example.

"This would help serve our own community and help our own community see some benefit off of tourism," Dowe said.

Greenville brought in a combined $21.6 million in local hospitality and accommodation taxes last year along with $2.5 million from state accommodation tax revenue. That revenue is projected to climb significantly higher this year; tourism revenue is well above budgeted levels halfway through the fiscal year, according to city budget reports.

Brown said the housing fund would like to request $2 million a year in hospitality taxes if the bill is passed.

Greenville's spending would help close affordable housing gap compared to peer cities

The city has dedicated $10.4 million to the Greenville Housing Fund since 2016. Greenville has committed less money per capita for affordable housing compared to Charleston. Asheville, Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina have also committed more money, according to Greenville Housing Fund data.

These new funding measures are intended to help close that gap.

The new measures would put Greenville's per capita spending ahead of Charleston and Raleigh. But given the economic prosperity and growth Greenville is experiencing, City Council should be dedicating $10.4 million to affordable housing every year, housing expert Michael Anderson recently told The News.

At a meeting with interfaith advocacy group GOAL Justice Tuesday night, city officials promised to work toward that goal.

In discussions about the accelerated funding, Dowe said it was time for City Council to "roll up their sleeves" and get to work.

"I don't want to give the impression this is a silver bullet, or that this is going to fix our problems overnight, nor that this is throwing more money at a problem. It is merely accelerating the money we've already been giving," Dowe said. "We are at a time when it really takes rolling up our sleeves and everybody's partnership ... who believes this is needed for our city."

Macon Atkinson is the city watchdog reporter for The Greenville News. She's powered by long runs and strong coffee. Follow her on Twitter @maconatkinson

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: New SC statehouse bill would change tourism tax for affordable housing