Getting Specific About Affordable Housing in Greenville

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Today we sit down with affordable housing leaders Monroe Free with Habitat for Humanity and Don Oglesby with Homes of Hope to discuss the state of affordable housing in Greenville County. From defining affordable housing to addressing rising costs and challenges in development, these leaders discuss how they are innovatively tackling the issue and providing life-changing opportunities for families to achieve affordable homeownership and economic mobility. Don’t miss this conversation on the importance of affordable housing and the positive impact it can have on Greenville County.

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Katy Smith: Affordable housing is a theme that has come up again and again on this podcast. It’s a crisis nationwide and certainly here in Greenville County, and I know you listeners are active and caring community members who are concerned about this as well. Affordable housing is complex. What does it look like?

Where is it located? What exactly is it? We’ll discuss just that with two leaders and affordable housing in our community: Monroe Free, President and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County and Don Oglesby, President and CEO of Homes of Hope. We’ve linked information on these organizations and the bios for these leaders and housing innovators in the show notes.

Well, I’m so privileged to be here with two gentlemen whom I respect tremendously, but also who know more about housing than almost anyone, maybe, maybe anyone. Period. In Greenville. Monroe and Don, thanks so much for joining me today.

Monroe Free: Thank you.

Don Oglesby: Yes. Happy to be here.

Monroe Free: Good to be with you. Always good to be with you, Katy.

Katy Smith: Well, let’s start by just, if you could give us a little thumbnail for listeners who don’t know about your organizations and the work that you do. Monroe, can you start by talking about Habitat for Humanity?

Monroe Free: Well, Habitat for Humanity, um, is famous for building houses, I think we’re building our 406th house here in Greenville County, and we’ll build about 15 new houses.

We also repair houses. We’ll do about 55 or 60 repair jobs, say repair jobs, houses that we will do repair for, for families to keep them in home ownership. Um, but for us, really, it, it’s, it’s about, uh, providing an opportunity for a family to change their financial trajectory. It’s about affordable homeownership, not just homeownership.

So for us, it’s, it’s giving away a, a foundation from which a, a family can generationally get out of poverty.

Katy Smith: Fabulous. And Don Homes of Hope. Tell us about it.

Don Oglesby: Yeah, we’re entering our 25th year this year, so that means I’m really old, but, uh, I’m really excited. A 25 year anniversary. In all that time, we’ve done the same two things. I know today’s conversation about affordable housing, and I’ll talk about that. But we also am very proud of our program for Men Overcoming Addictions and Workforce Development Training uh, that we do. Teaching them construction skills that are life changing, getting them employed in the market at, above Living Wages. Graduated 326 men from that program over those years. In housing uh, we are probably definitely more better known I guess, for housing cause Homes of Hope is in in our name. We do build all over the state.

We’re based in Greenville. We love Greenville. We’d rather just stay in Greenville if we could, but there’s a lot of need across the state. So we build about two thirds of our housing is rental affordable, and the other third is affordable home ownership, and beyond that, I think the, the stability a family finds in having a home that they can afford is really life changing. In addition to that, economic mobility opportunities, connecting families to opportunities for economic mobility after their housed is so critical for both organizations to link them to resources that maybe either they didn’t know about or there was a barrier to, or whatever other reason there might be.

The story of affordable housing has to include that because it doesn’t just stop there. The end of the story is not handing ’em the key. The beginning of the story is handing ’em the key. So we’re doing that all over the state. I think we’ve built 686 houses and have 202 under construction right now in various places over the state.

So we’re aggressively trying to help solve the problem, but even that as we’ll probably get into today, doesn’t even touch the big problem, but, uh, that’s what we do and, and hopefully we’re gonna keep learning how to do it even better.

Katy Smith: Let’s go ahead and define what is affordable housing.

Monroe Free: So the easy definition is that a family pays less than 30% of their income on their housing. When you’re talking about low income families, though, it, it really needs to mean a little bit more than that because their operating costs on that house need to be lower too. So I know we build the EarthCraft standard.

I know y’all, y’all build two uh, energy star standards to keep, uh, operating costs down. But you also need to think about the transportation cost of the family. Can they get to work easily? Can they get to schools easily? Um, do they have grocery stores, et cetera nearby? Because transportation is an issue with in affordable housing.

So, and I think to think about it as a, a family who has low income, who’s making $34,000 a year.. 30% of their income is a much more significant issue than somebody who’s making $150,000 a year because bread, as a percentage of income, costs them a whole lot more than it does at somebody who’s on higher wages.

So I think we need, even though that definition is we have to use, I think there’s broader ways to think about affordable housing.

Don Oglesby: So the thing, I agree with all of that, and then it’s so critical. People don’t think about the percentage of groceries or gas for a low income family, and, and they don’t, just don’t think about it in those ways. They’re paying the same prices that anybody is. So the thing I always want to emphasize in affordable housing definitions, Monroe’s already said what the math equation is, and it is a math equation. So I had a group I spoke to one time, I said, everybody close your eyes and then just think about what I, what, what pops into your head when I say the words affordable housing. And I gave them a few seconds. I said, open your eyes again. I said, you probably, some of you probably thought of something that didn’t look that great.

It was pushed to the backside of the city or the county. It had a fence around it. It was a highrise, it was crime infested. Whatever you want to define. Affordable housing’s not a thing you should be able to see. So affordable housing to some people is, that’s what that looks like. No affordable housing’s a math equation and everybody needs to be able to afford their house.

And so if all affordable housing that our organizations build is market quality, indistinguishable from the market, interjected in the market, not isolated, not segregated by income, then that’s healthy and that family then has a chance. And, but if you stigmatize ’em into, you know, something’s wrong with you, you need help… Don’t we all need help

Katy Smith: Right. Well, and, and we all need, I mean, if affordable housing is 30% of your income, that is no matter who you are in Greenville County. So if we know what the spread of incomes and wages are for a variety of jobs, whether you’re a CEO or you’re working in fast food, we need to have housing that maps out with that same array of jobs.

Where we have a huge gap right now is at the low end of that ladder, and yet we have a lot of these jobs.

So you both have talked about rental and home ownership as part of the housing ecosystem. Can you describe the role that both play in helping folks with economic mobility? Maybe we can talk about first, where does rental fit in?

Don Oglesby: We all, I think even folks like us that, that develop a decent number of affordable rental houses ,recognize that home ownership is still the very best way to grow assets in our country. And We’re always putting that out there as a goal that they should strive to if they can.

Sometimes you, you can’t, sometimes you’re a senior citizen, you say, I’m not really interested in that, or I’m disabled somehow. That’s not for me. That’s okay. So I don’t want people to think they’re less of a citizen because they rent. But beyond that, connecting them to, all of a sudden now, I’m not paying 60% of my income for housing. I’m only paying 30%. What do I do now? So it’s, it’s an opportunity for what’s next. What’s next could be home ownership. It could be starting a small business or having the money to go back to school, get a degree if you didn’t get one before. Maybe you get a better job. All those things are entry levels towards home ownership, but also we don’t want folks to feel like they’re not a success if they just stay as a renter. The other critical thing for me to talk about for affordable rental is in gentrifying areas, like Greenville.

We don’t sell our rental houses to the renters when they decide they want to be a homeowner. We will build them a house next door or across the street or help them find another house, or maybe they buy a Habitat house and then we’re gonna move somebody else in and get them an opportunity to start.

Because once you sell the housing, you lose control. I call it beachheads of affordability. We dig in into the city of Greenville, and I think in Greenville we have like 230 rental homes that we own and manage. They’ll always be affordable as long as we exist and they’re always gonna have opportunities. So it’s, it’s kind of our, one of our weapons against gentrification is let’s not lose control of that beachhead of affordability and then as people move out, that’s great.

And we just moved somebody else in cause our waiting list is three or four miles long.

Katy Smith: Wow. And you know it’s Don, you have said that for years to me and others about the importance of rental in gentrifying neighborhoods. And I intellectually got it when I first heard you say it like 10 years ago, and now I can drive down those very streets and say, oh my gosh, yes, houses are being torn down next door, turned into now beautiful homes that are at a much higher dollar rate, but still someone can live in that house because you’ve maintained it as an affordable rental.

So I really appreciate that.

Don Oglesby: That’s important for folks to understand that when that house builds next door to you and your house was $60,000 value, and the house next door is 600.. Sure your value’s gonna go up and that’s good for you, but your taxes also go up. Or if you’re a renter, your landlord then looks around and says, well, I can start charging $1,600 a month for rent instead of $600.

And then they ask you to leave. It impacts everybody.

Katy Smith: All right. Let’s talk about home ownership. Monroe, you’ve had the wonderful experience of handing keys over to folks to be first time homeowners.

Can you talk about . The experience of those folks, but also the importance of home ownership as Don alluded to?

Monroe Free: A family has to be able to afford where their shelter is. And so if it’s a home ownership, that’s great and there are some benefits to that.

But first of all, we got to get ’em into a house that they can afford. The advantage of home ownership is that you develop equity in your home. So there’s generational wealth that can develop, for a family.

Just like in my family, other family, most all American families, they develop their wealth through the equity in their home that they can invest in a child’s education, they can pass on through an estate, they can, manage the, uh, difficult times in life because they have access to some equity.

Katy Smith: What are some challenges you’re seeing these days? We have challenges nationwide for sure. And you are experiencing them, I’m sure with every deal you do. What are you seeing on the ground that’s making developing affordable housing more challenging now?

Don Oglesby: To me, I think we take for granted sometimes that people know certain things. One of the things I think we take for granted that they know or don’t know maybe, is that it costs the same to build an affordable house as it does to build a market rate house. We’re paying the same for the land, labor, materials, design, all of it. And it has to be market quality for it to be excellent and not stigmatize that family to where everybody can point to their house and say, look, that must be a low income person. So it’s costing so much to build a house today, more than I’ve ever seen in 25 years. And I know 25 years ago everything was cheaper, but I’ve never seen the increases to the level. I’ll give you an example. We have four projects that we’re building that total up to 1 77. So they’re all big projects.

When we went to the the municipality to apply for approval of engineering of the site and building permits. Our budgets for those 177 houses were 32 million by the time we got permits and approvals. The budgets are 147 million.

They’ve gone up almost 50%. And so as a market developer, if I’m a market developer, I just, well, I just gotta sell ’em for a higher price or rent ’em for a higher price.

We can’t do that. We’re capped on our pricings cuz we of who we choose to serve. So that’s the big barrier and obstacle for affordable housing is, is cost the same. And if you think about rental housing as we own it and manage it, then the interest rates affect that end cost as well. So we have to be really innovative and creative in finding ways to drive the costs down.

And there’s multiple ways to do that, and we can talk about that if you want to, but that’s, that’s the biggest challenge in 25 years that I’ve seen is how do we navigate these unbelievable price increases and now doubled interest rates.

Katy Smith: Yeah. Monroe, what are you seeing?

Monroe Free: To what Don is saying, I think, uh, last year our price on our houses went up about 17%. This year it looks like it’s gonna be somewhere between 10 and 15% again, so that clearly is an issue. With that goes land costs too, uh, which are just extraordinary. So at Habitat, just like with Don, we guarantee every family will be under 30% of their income.

We have some unique challenges right now that we sell our houses at appraise value, that’s what’s right for the neighborhood, right? And so we sell it at appraised value, but then we still have to keep the family under 30% of their income. Our houses in Nickeltown where we’re building, they’re first one appraised at $299,000. Hard to get a family with low income under 30%. Um, and we have some ways to do that, but it is incredibly difficult and it costs us, it means we have to subsidize that house, at a much higher rate.

And then property taxes go up with that. Year over year, our families are paying $200 a month more in escrow, taxes, and insurance, than they were one year ago. You mix all that together and, uh, it’s made some real challenges for our business model. Uh, we’re working, uh, like HEC to to, to figure that out.

And we’re still putting families in homes. Man, the hit to the organization and our sustainability is, is significant. We’re just having to change the way we do business.

Katy Smith: I wanna point out that on previous episodes, and we’ll note some of those in the show notes, we’ve talked about this idea at a macro level that people talk about AMI, area median income, and having housing that is at 80% of area median income and 60% and 30% as a measure that folks use. You’re looking then at the area’s median income. So as folks move here and have higher incomes, as people that are at the top end have an income that shifts, it does not change the fact that if someone’s working at a fast food restaurant or in childcare, their income is not pulling up like that I appreciate so much the work that y’all are doing that focuses on the individual’s experience of if you’re trying to keep it affordable at 30% of their income that meets their needs. But when you’ve got a house that has gone up $100,000 in a short period, that’s just hard to keep up with.

Monroe Free: AMI went up $10,000 last year in Greenville County. So, it’s made it much more, uh, made it much more difficult, uh, across the board. And, and, and you’re right, the wages, we see the data that says wages have increased significantly over the last year or two, but what it doesn’t say, Is that low income, jobs, those wages have not increased at the same rate as higher wage jobs.

And so our families, even though their incomes have increased, have not increased to meet the demand of inflation.

Katy Smith: Yeah. Yeah. Well, what are some creative things, as you alluded to, that either you all can do or are doing, or that we as a community can do, whether it’s philanthropy or government, to help crack this situation?

Don Oglesby: Is this where I can say, just give us all your money?

Katy Smith: You could say that if that’s the thing.

Don Oglesby: Uh, I’m only half kidding, by the way. The 80% ami, target that is in the new development code, and it says if you devote 15% of your units to 80% AMI or below, they consider you having developed affordable housing, but 80% AMI in Greenville County for family of four is $70,000.

If you do the math on that, that means they can afford $1,750 in rent. So the families we serve are not in that game. We need to keep trying harder in getting the requirements for affordable housing to reach 30% AMI and 50% AMI and 60% AMI and yes, 80% AMI. Talk to your city council and county council members about that.

We can’t just stop at 80% and say, or below if you, if we don’t cover all of them. So there’s a thing called, income averaging that talks about that. If you have an average of 60% AMI that means you have some at 80 and some at 30 and some at 40, and therefore you’re serving some other folks. So you know, I think, Monroe’s done some of these things too, and I’m sure he can talk about those. But one of the things we’ve done is open up beyond donations. So we, we need all, all the donations we can get. Affordable housing is not developed with cheap materials or cheap labor, or cheap design. It’s developed with cheap money, so it has to be low cost money, below market money, patient capital, donated capital.

Katy Smith: If you wanna learn more about the development code, we did an episode a couple of weeks ago with Shannon Lavrin, the assistant city manager, and really encourage you to go back and look at that.

There is tremendous opportunity for donors who are philanthropic and who have capacity, who have wealth, to make not just gifts, but investments in this kind of work. And if you want to consider doing that, please talk to either Monroe or Don about how they can put your capital to work or talk to us at Greater Good Greenville, because we’re happy to give you information on local impact investing that you can put your assets to work to really make a dent in, in this affordable housing.

Monroe Free: So, I just left a meeting, where we brought in, creative Builders and Will McCauley and some of the mayors in Greenville County. And we did that because creative builders had put together an affordable housing development over, uh, on the west side of town. And, there was a piece of property that was not as, um, usable in the, uh, design creative builders were doing. So they came to us and said, can y’all use these? And we are putting nine single family houses on there. I think while there’s some ways to incentivize builders. I think still if builders will be, uh, developers will be alert to small pieces of land that Habitat Could, or Homes of Hope could put a few units on that they could give us.

And, it makes sense and their whole development because it saves them their taxes, et cetera, plus creates goodwill. So I think there’re just things out there. We need to, uh, put our thinking hats on now. Put our creative hats on and, uh, we’re, we’re doing that. I know Don is doing that, and we talk together about will this work?

Will that work? We’ve got to do something.

Katy I think I would like to talk about… we’ve talked about all the problem. But when you see what Don and I see every day in terms of the opportunity with affordable housing and the impact that makes on families and neighborhoods, when I look at all the things that we talk about, the social problems, social wheels of our society, somewhere in there is affordable housing.

And let’s take a few, I say education. 68% of our families tell us that their kids’ grades improve when they go into a habitat house. Families, over 60% of our families say their health improves in their families, uh, when they go into a habitat house. The residual effects, and Dan, I’m, I’m sure you’ve noticed this. The psycho psychosocials, uh, the, the emotional impact of being in a safe, decent, affordable place to live, is just remarkable. Went to get my hair cut. Lady cutting hair was a Habitat home homeowner. I said, how are you doing? How are the kids? She says, oh, things are so great.

I said, well, what’s the big difference? And she said, I have time to spend with my kids now because, I don’t have to work three jobs. I only have to work one job. the residual effects of good affordable housing are just profound and I, I just don’t want us to leave with saying, we gotta solve the problem.

We need to create the opportunity for families to thrive. And I think that’s what affordable housing does. I know at Habitat, I know at homes. I hope that’s what it does.

Don Oglesby: And the word value just jumps out at me. Okay so if you have your favorite person that cuts your hair or your favorite waiter at your favorite restaurant, and you said, this is a great person. I love when they wait on me or whatever. You’re valuing that person. We always, as a community, invest in what we value.

And so it’s a value proposition, if you will. People in this income range are working hard and trying, and they, they can’t keep up with the costs. Do we value them enough to invest our value into this as a problem? Not as Monroe said, not as a solving a problem box checker, we’re talking about people here and we’re talking about folks that we really need to have these jobs and, and do these things for our community to work.

Katy Smith: Well I believe that’s who we are as a community of valuing our neighbors. And if people hear this and they think I wanna make a difference, what are some things you would recommend people can do?

Don Oglesby: Two things come to mind. So one is be educated, so learn more about it. So we have what I call a nickel tour and don’t charge the nickel. And I will personally take any listener that contacts us, just go to the website, say, I want a tour with Don and it takes 30 minutes for me to show you about a hundred of our houses nearby our office and see the quality and the community that we’re talking about.

And if you’re interested in men’s workforce development program, that’s less than a half a mile from our office, I can show you that as well. And then educate, talk about the, the issue with your friends and at church and at work when it comes up, because it is coming up. And learn about these things and talk about them.

And then I think somewhere in the conversation you mentioned, what could maybe they talk to their elected officials about… we’ve got to do more. I mean, that’s my theme tagline is, okay, 15% is good, 80% of AMI is good. Let’s, we’ve gotta do more. We have to push harder. We’re gonna look back at that and and say, boy, that should have worked.

Did it work? And we’re gonna go “no.” I’m just, sorry. That’s my prediction of the future. If we don’t go deeper and harder and, and try harder. And we’ve got, I appreciate the effort. I really do. So I don’t want that to come across overly negative. I’m just saying we can push harder, do more, because that’s not gonna cut all of the, uh, it’s not gonna, it’s not gonna go as far as it needs to go.

Monroe Free: Well, volunteers build Habitat Houses. So you can volunteer. We certainly need money and, and those kinds of things, but I, I, I’ll take it to a, a little bit of a different place. I think that so much about affordable housing is about funding priorities. We have neighborhoods that are historic, uh, low income neighborhoods, historic African American neighborhoods, where there’s not been investment in infrastructure.

That’s a priority decision that is made by our governments. And I think making sure that those people’s voices are heard, those neighborhoods voices are heard about funding priorities. And I know we like to feel good about the city and the county putting money into affordable housing, but if we’re honest, the city of Greenville’s putting 2 million a year into a 220 million a year problem.

And now with that priority means we’re not gonna be able to do some other things. So some of us who are more fortunate than, uh, live in nicer areas or whatever, we are gonna have to sacrifice a little bit. We’re gonna have to be willing to take less so our neighbors can have What, is, They’re just amount.

So I, I think it’s that values issue. It’s about funding priorities, which are a reflection of our values. And I, I think that’s really not only what, where we need to be pushing our political, elected officials, but that we also need to wrestle with ourselves and say, I’m willing to have just a little bit less so that other people can have a safe and decent and affordable place to live.

Katy Smith: Interesting. The other thing that occurs to me is how you’ve both talked about how, um, these houses that are meeting that lower AMI are tucked in everywhere and they should be cause we want vibrant neighborhoods. And that makes me think that’s something that all of us can also do is recognize that if we value affordable housing, it would be important to value it right where we live also.

And so I think as some of these projects come up, people might appreciate the need for them theoretically, but then when it’s at the end of their street, they all turn up angry. That is a big thing we can do is to welcome neighbors who might make less than we do and live in houses that are less expensive than ours.

Don Oglesby: But Well they’re no less human than we.

Katy Smith: That’s right. That’s right. I appreciate you both so very much as colleagues in the nonprofit field, but also for being leaders in this super, super important work. And, um, thank you very much for being here.

Monroe Free: Thank you Katy.

Don Oglesby: Thank you.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.

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