Looking for affordable housing in Rock Hill? How a $1.2 million boost will help.

A record grant will mean more affordable housing options in Rock Hill.

At a Rock Hill City Council workshop Thursday, city grants administrator Krista Parenti announced the Housing Development Corporation of Rock Hill received a $1.2 million South Carolina Housing Authority grant that will pay for eight new homes in Sunset Park.

“It is the largest single grant that HDC has ever received,” Parenti said.

For the 2018-19 year, the nonprofit group received eight housing, utility assistance, rental, mortgage, first-time homebuyer or related grants. They combine for almost $684,000. The housing development group expects about that amount again in the coming year, in addition to the $1.2 million.

The city also has two pending grant requests for a combined $324,000. That money would go toward home construction in Sunset Park and Catawba Terrace, along with stormwater work and a new bus stop in Sunset Park.

The grant will create two-bedroom, senior housing options with accessibility features.

“That’s going to help eight low- to moderate-income families,” Parenti said.

The city isn’t concerned with having to find them.

What’s affordable housing

Dawn Willingham, neighborhood development coordinator with the city, used to give long explanations when asked what she did.

“I finally just decided I would say, I help people buy, fix and keep their homes,” Willingham said. “So we kind of adopted that for our mission.”

It isn’t an easy task. A recent area housing study found a minimum wage worker in York County would need to put in 89 hours a week to afford one-bedroom housing in Rock Hill, based on paying the industry standard 30% monthly income. Several entry-level position pay levels just hit or fell below the threshold needed to rent in Rock Hill.

“We are talking about our retail workers,” said Jennifer Wilford, housing and neighborhood services director for the city. “We are talking about our entry-level teachers and firemen. So as we talk about low- to moderate-income, we’re really trying to put a picture alongside of this.”

A typical vacancy rate is 5%, Wilford said. The Rock Hill study sampled market rate and more affordable apartment options. It found .8% vacancy.

“Not only do we have a balance issue in terms of affordability, we’ve also got a balance issue in terms of accessibility,” Wilford said. “These units are leasing up quickly and they’re staying leased up.”

The HDC works to help. In the past year, the city had 170 participants in first-time homebuyer classes. Five homeowners were helped to make down payments. The HDC provided $31,000 toward purchases, with the average home price at $146,000.

“In their price range there’s not a lot of housing stock out there, and they get into bidding wars for the housing,” Willingham said. “So this is where the homes that we have constructed are a great resource for them because they are at that affordable price and they are not competing with investors.”

The group also spent $203,000 on 22 home rehab projects. A dozen homeowners were able to stay in their homes through loan modifications. There were 235 default and foreclosure counseling, 132 budgeting counseling and 71 first-time homebuyer sessions.

“There is a real need out there for people to learn how to manage their money,” Willingham said. “They are not getting it from home. They are not getting it from school. We are trying to provide that, and of course, it is free of charge.”

What’s next

Last fall, the HDC adopted a three-year strategic plan. City departments study income, residence and related data. There’s a pilot project to model that information to allow elected officials to make policy decisions.

Wilford said the city has money to build nine to 15 units apart from the $1.2 million grant. Leaders met with a Greenville developer on similar efforts there to create mixed-income communities, including affordable housing that doesn’t always seem like it.

“It doesn’t necessarily look like what people may think we’re talking about when we say affordable housing,” Wilford said. “This looks like what you would see in Riverwalk, in Baxter, in places like that.”

Elected officials will have to decide how far to go in creating mixed-income areas, particularly downtown. Councilwoman Nikita Jackson had concerns with one $1,000 a month benchmark for affordable downtown rent.

“There are still some people that are still just not going to be able to afford that amount,” she said. “There are just people who cannot afford to move downtown and move into housing at that price.”

Jackson looks at city zoning rules and wonders if there’s room to improve. Allowing more apartments in smaller spaces is one issue.

“If we, the city, really want to tackle that, we’re going to have to loosen our restraints or revisit our restraints on the zoning, because it’s going to prohibit and probably has already prohibited some affordable housing projects,” Jackson said.

Wilford said city leaders can determine the viability of affordable housing projects with the rules they set.

“The reality is, the higher the density, the lower the rent can be,” Wilford said.

Councilwoman Sandra Oborokumo said she understands the difference in affordable versus low-income housing but wonders whether groups like the local housing authority should have a seat at the discussion table.

“It seems that they should be or could be a part of what we are doing here because they do provide the housing for those who cannot afford the affordable and workforce housing,” Oborokumo said.

There’s still plenty of work for city leaders, but with the new grant and ongoing efforts, there’s a sense of making an impact on the options for affordable housing.

“We’re building capacity within the community to start doing more and more of this, in more and more places,” Wilford said.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.
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