For years, vocal members of the island workforce community have felt leaders have paid mere lip service to the need for truly affordable workforce housing.
But there is reason for hope, as town leaders have taken steps to put real actions behind previous sound bites to push the hope toward reality.
In late February, Hilton Head Island Town Manager Marc Orlando laid out a plan for a public-private partnership strategy to develop workforce housing on more than 12 acres of town-owned land near the North End post office. Town Council approved the plan in early March and gave the go-ahead to pursue the public-private partnership idea.
“Town staff spent considerable time evaluating and cataloging allowable uses for each parcel of Town-owned land, and reviewing recommendations included within our comprehensive plan and our strategic plan,” Orlando said of the proposal. “We’ve also studied demographic and housing data and support a public-private partnership to advance Town Council housing goals. We are looking for a partner who shares our vision and can help increase the affordable housing supply on the Island.”
Ward 5 Town Council member Tom Lennox called the move “a watershed moment” for the island.
But beyond the words, leaders are excited to see meaningful change in progress.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Marc and his staff. They heard us in terms of what our priorities were from his Day One and they have given us a path to go from zero to 60 mph on making this a reality,” said Ward 1 Town Council member Alex Brown, a long-time vocal advocate in helping the town make this issue a priority. “We have requests for proposals and qualifications out on the streets, we’re having strong conversations with potential partners, and I see it firsthand that we are truly realizing what’s possible here.
“Affordable housing, workforce housing, it has this negative label, like it creates housing that residents don’t want in their backyard,” Brown said. “We’re talking about sustainable community neighborhoods here, period. You create that, you set in motion a chain reaction of positivity that incentivizes our workforce into becoming long-term residents and stewards of island life instead of it just being a paycheck.”
The economic shift from properties that were long-term rentals to short-term and vacation rentals has been a boon for some, but further heightened the crisis of truly attainable inventory for both potential new residents and a workforce that has zero interest in time-consuming, costly commutes.
“We’re very excited to see that town staff, administration and leadership has made this a foremost priority,” said Lee Lucier, COO of the Richardson Group. “We’re passionate about our community, I’ve raised my family here, J.R. (Richardson) and his family have been forces in building this community for 60-plus years, but we are at a crossroads here. Attainable housing is essential to attract the next generation of islanders that sustain the long-term future of what we hold so dear.”
“We are talking about the long-term here. We have a crisis in the short-term, but addressing attainable housing and getting this bridge project right are at the two issues at the core of what our future will be here,” said J.R. Richardson, owner of the Richardson Group. “We have got to be creative and meaningful in making these changes and evolving our approach here.
“This impacts resident way of life, this impacts tourism and our ability to provide the level of service that will continue to attract the quality of tourists we have become known for, Richardson said. “Folks say it’s going to cost too much money to address, but it would have been cheaper if we’d dealt with this 20 years ago and it will be cheaper to properly get ahead of this now than 20 years down the road.”
The Richardson Group built the first two commercial-to-residential conversions on the island in years with One Park Lane and the 7 Lagoon Road projects, two communities that have attracted a diverse microcosm of the local economy – from bankers to teachers to project managers and food and beverage staff.
The company’s restaurants on Hilton Head don’t open until 4 p.m. because they can’t risk working their quality staffers too hard. A town study done two years ago showed that 80% of island long-term rentals were priced at $1,500 or more per month, while the average wage for workers was just $1,200 per month. The pandemic, supply chain issues and inflation over the past 24 months have created a wider gap in those statistics.
“They’re facing upside-down numbers in terms of the costs of housing and how it fits into their monthly budget. It is not attainable,” Lucier said. “So the conversation is creating communities with parks and walking trails and child care and commercial outlets. We’re not just talking about buildings here. It’s a full shift in how we turn a problem into a solution.”
The hope is that the 12-acre tract is the test balloon that proves the viability of a public-private partnership in not just addressing the housing issues, but in creating connected districts.
The issue was at the forefront of the May 24 Town Council workshop, where concepts for developing the mid-island tract were presented. Beyond the park development at the former Planter’s Row Golf Course, there is a hope that the surrounding areas from Hilton Head Airport to the Mathews Drive intersection with U.S. 278 can evolve into a new-concept district that is the blueprint for the next generation of island living.
“Connectivity is the key. Let’s connect this 12-acre project through pathways and parks that gives residents a full lifestyle with homes and commercial outlets and green spaces,” Brown said. “That’s what we heard and that’s the goal. Marc says we can have true shovels in the ground to start this in motion by 2023. That is essential and we all believe it’s doable.”
Town staff have said that initial response from local developers has been extremely positive. The key now is picking from the interested partners to find the best match for the town’s scope for the project.
“Let’s make sure we are creating the right neighborhood and not just maxing out the number of units that could be added,” Orlando said while sharing a vision for a sustainable community design for housing. “We want to make sure we create a resilient neighborhood and add value to Hilton Head Island.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.