Sunday, October 11, 2009
The “living city” as Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. once described Charleston, South Carolina, stands on the verge of losing what remains of its historic diversity of use and richness of place. Evidence suggests that many downtown neighborhoods that once housed families with children now seem desolate at night because of absentee ownership. Although Charleston does better than most cities, affordable housing in many sectors of its historic peninsula has all but disappeared. Long-time residents, seeking better value, frequently shop and dine in nearby towns and suburbs. Friends who do gather downtown to socialize generally live elsewhere because housing prices long ago outpaced wages. The apparent urban vibrancy one sees at night draws largely from the tourist trade.
One hears the dilemma described over and over again: “No one lives here anymore.” Historic cities feel this problem acutely. Even as Charleston leads the nation in historic preservation law creation, application of this law results in half-hearted successes, due in part to conflicting zoning laws that work against the preservation goals and the principles of good urbanism. One of the issues my property class will examine next semester is the problem of affordable housing in historic districts. We will start by defining affordable housing, learning the basics of historic preservation law, studying applicable local zoning laws, attending planning commission meetings in small groups, and meeting with the Lowcountry Housing Trust to identify solutions. As the city surrounding our law school continues to emphasize hotels and tourism over the development of other industries in the historic urban core, affordable housing pressures will rise. This issue is especially relevant in a city where lawyer salaries have not keep pace with housing prices, either.
Will Cook, Charleston School of Law