ARTICLE & PHOTO BY: DAMIAN DOMINGUEZ firstname.lastname@example.org
Greenwood city and county leaders, realtors, local business heads and nonprofit leaders gathered Friday morning to explore options for creating the housing Greenwood needs to offer its residents a path to prosperity.
The Greenwood SC Chamber of Commerce hosted its housing summit Friday at the Little River Multicultural Center to learn about varieties of modern housing options that fit people’s actual needs. They also discussed the institutional steps local officials can take to help promote measured housing development that can promote and attract businesses and industries.
“At the heart of workforce housing is the idea that people should be able to live in the communities where they work,” said chamber President Barbara Ann Heegan. “... We miss a sense of community and being able to connect with each other.”
The summit came about after Heegan visited Clarkston, Georgia, where she met MicroLife Institute Executive Director Will Johnston. After starting MicroLife nine years ago with his business partner, Johnston has focused on how housing can be built differently. He said the housing market has disconnected what it’s building from actual household sizes.
Citing AARP data, he said 80% of households have fewer than the traditional four people of the nuclear family, but 72% of houses being built are designed for four-person families. Older people looking to downsize are finding they have few options, and single people without children find most housing isn’t geared for them.
There’s a stigma against zoning land for higher-density housing, and the overabundance of single-family housing is leaving many cities without the variety of options people need.
“We have zoned our way into a corner in America,” he said. “Density is good, it actually supports your city’s tax base.”
As keynote speaker, Johnston asked attendees to consider more variety in blocks and residential neighborhoods — from traditional single-family houses to accessory dwelling units, apartment complexes, duplexes and other ways of organizing housing. He emphasized walkability and proximity to businesses and services, along with gathering spaces where people can interact.
Johnston champions “cottage courts,” also called pocket neighborhoods. These are smaller residences organized in groups of six to 12 units. These separate houses each have usable porches and private back yards, but what makes them unique is that they are connected by green spaces and courtyards that invite the residents to gather and share space. These courtyards can house edible gardens for residents to tend and patio furniture for cookouts and other gatherings.
Parking is separated from the houses themselves in a cottage court, he said, to free up the courtyard for walking paths. Instead, residents park in nearby lots.
When Johnston heard about this, he needed to see it himself to believe it. In Clarkston, Georgia, MicroLife built the Cottages on Vaughn, a community like this that put eight houses on little more than half an acre. He lives in one of those houses, which range from the smallest at 250 square feet to ones of about 750 square feet split between a ground floor and a loft.
The small lot sizes didn’t detract from the neighborhood’s appeal — in fact, Johnston said there was a waiting list of more than 1,000 people eager to get a spot in this community. Eight people were vying for the smallest house before it was even listed.
“We had traveling nurses, we had so many people on the go,” he said. “We had people who just wanted to own a little nugget of space.”
Johnston told the crowd he wasn’t asking anyone to live in a smaller home, just to consider that there are people who do want smaller living spaces, as well as people who could own a home for the first time through smaller housing options.
In impoverished neighborhoods, he said nonprofits can play a role in helping facilitate housing that’s needed for communities in crisis. He’s working with the United Way of Macon, Georgia to create a cottage court neighborhood that will serve as transitional housing, complete with a community center.
Cooperation from builders, planning staff, local government and the nonprofit sector is key to developing a housing plan that provides a variety of choices for residents. Johnston hosted a panel discussion about housing featuring City Manager Julie Wilkie, city/county Planning Director Phil Lindler, Community Initiatives Executive Director Teresa Goodman and Dan Hobbs, president of modular home builder Impresa Building Systems.
Part of bringing variety to Greenwood’s housing market will come from city efforts, Wilkie said. She explained how the city is looking at its west-side neighborhoods nearby the Greenwood County Library and tearing down boarded-up houses. The city is buying property with the intent to revitalize the area and provide housing that people already tied to the area can live in and be proud of.
Any development or change to existing neighborhoods will come with some resistance, but Wilkie said the city is focused on retaining Greenwood’s character.
“We have a lot of aging houses close to the city center,” she said. “I think there’s a little bit of fear among our residents that we’re going to become something we don’t want to be.”
To that end, it’s not enough to build new houses; Wilkie said she wants to pay attention to how Greenwood builds, so the private sector doesn’t reshape the city into something it’s not.
Goodman said coming from the nonprofit world, there’s a wealth of voices and opinions frequently left out of the housing conversation — the people struggling financially who lack housing options. Real innovation requires bringing them to the table.
“Who is being represented,” Goodman asked. “Those voices are not at the table. Those voices are not here today because they don’t have $35.”
Wilkie said more than 50% of the city’s housing is rental property; how can officials teach people about transitional programs and paths to homeownership, and how can they help people attain that? Some renters spend around $900 a month to rent a two-bedroom house, Goodman said, while they’re making less than $40,000 a year? How do you provide flexibility for people being choked out by rising rates?
“There’s a tragedy there,” Hobbs said, “because that is a vicious cycle that they can’t escape from on their own terms.”
Lindler said the city and county passed accessory dwelling unit ordinances, giving builders some flexibility because it allows for existing lots to build an attached or detached structure behind or beside an existing house. Master plan residential zoning also gives builders options.
But laying the groundwork for a new vision of housing in Greenwood will take work. It requires infrastructure that builders can tap into, access to health care, education and transportation. Uptown is undergoing a walkability study and local officials are in contact with the state’s housing authority about an affordable market study.
The next steps, Heegan said, will be bringing these resources and community partners together to continue the conversation and find solutions that are right for Greenwood.
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