By Hannah Alani firstname.lastname@example.org
The limbs of several massive oaks shade the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III as he walks through a vacant, rectangular lot on Mint Avenue.
A neighborhood dog walks up and licks Rivers’ crisp suit. Kids up the street play in their front yard. Rivers shoos the dog away, focuses his attention on the lot and talks about what could be.
At least two families could live here, he says. The piece of dirt is large enough for two small homes.
His church’s nonprofit, the Charity Foundation, could build these homes and sell them at relatively affordable prices. The two families could pay less on their mortgages than what they currently pay in rent, he adds.
In this part of North Charleston, one where $8 craft brews, quick airport access and a 20-minute commute to just about anywhere is attracting a new middle class — the time for more African-American home ownership, Rivers says, is now.
“Gentrification is real,” the pastor says. “It’s like a river running through a rock.”
‘Buying back the block’
The prospect of gentrification is particularly worrisome for those who know and care about Liberty Hill — one of the Lowcountry’s oldest African-American communities, founded by the families of four freed slaves in 1871.
To keep it at bay, they’re turning their attention first to at least five of the neighborhood’s vacant lots that are owned by the city of North Charleston. The Charity Foundation, a nonprofit associated with the Charity Missionary Baptist Church on East Montague, hopes to acquire those lots and build affordable housing on them.
Many of the dozens of other vacant lots here are owned by children or grandchildren of the last family that resided on them. Because of the complexity of South Carolina’s heirs property laws, it’s nearly impossible to buy those now rotting homes from the families, Charity Foundation leader Nashonda Hunter said.
The church group plans to develop the city’s lots for affordable housing; some, like the Mint Avenue property, as single-family homes. Others would be multi-family dwellings. The city has agreed to let Charity present plans for how it would develop the lots, and at the end of 20 months, the city will determine which, if any, lots to give the church.
Hunter said the church would pursue multi-family housing at 4880 Luella Ave. and 1592 Varner Lane. These lots currently abut existing streets full of multi-family housing, so replicating what is already working makes sense.
But Hunter said the Charity Foundation ultimately is pushing for long-term homeownership, not rentals. For a low-income family in today’s housing market, a valuable purchase could be a flat or two inside an apartment complex.
“We want to ‘buy back the block,'” she said.
North Charleston Councilman Bob King spoke out against the group’s plans to develop multi-family homes at a recent City Council meeting.
“That’s the only way we’re going to get the young people to move back to Liberty Hill,” he said. “If they come back at all, it’ll have to be single-family houses.”
Councilman Sam Hart, who lives in Liberty Hill and represents the majority of the neighborhood, supports the project. Rivers said Hart is a member of Charity’s church congregation and was instrumental in getting the city’s preliminary approval.
“I doubt the city would have responded so well without the insight and credibility of Brother Hart,” Rivers said.
Will the project take off?
City planner Adam MacConnell, who is the Charity Foundation’s point person in the city, said the church is open to both.
“We welcome any new investment we can find in Liberty Hill,” he said. “We think it’s in dire need of it.”
That said, the church will need to prove its ability to find financing and a builder for these vacant properties.
It has existing partnerships with the S.C. Community Loan Fund and the locally based Increasing Hope financial literacy program. A third partner, Origin SC, played an integral role in the church’s purchase of its first affordable home on Independent Avenue in Liberty Hill.
Of its partnership with Origin SC, Hunter said, “They not only assist us with funding for affordable housing, but they also assist with our financial literacy piece, providing credit counseling and debt management to help our community members become home owners.”
At the end of the 20-month agreement, the Charity Foundation will present its plans to City Council. At that point, the city will consider donating one lot, MacConnell said. If the church group succeeds there, the city will consider donating more.
At the end of the day, the city and the church share the same goal, MacConnell said, and that’s to shift Liberty Hill from a neighborhood of chance to one of choice.
The Charity Foundation has other initiatives in the works here. Rivers was instrumental in establishing K-12 STEM education at each of the three Liberty Hill elementary, middle and high schools. He did so through partnership with the Charleston County School District and financial support from Boeing.
Tim Keating is executive vice president of Government Operations for Boeing, and his duties include fostering relationships with the local communities surrounding the company’s locations. He also oversees the company’s grant money.
He has done this work across the country at Boeing’s locations in St. Louis, Chicago and Seattle. What struck Keating as different about North Charleston was the importance of the churches.
Keating said in North Charleston, Friday nights are for high school football and Sundays are for God — and making a difference in the local community requires fostering relationships with its faith leaders.
“The way you get in, especially in South Carolina, is in the churches,” he said. “That’s the center of peoples lives.”
Keating has met with Rivers several times and attended events at Charity Baptist Church, including last February’s African-American History Month celebration. Keating traveled to Zimbabwe with Rivers in May. And Keating said Rivers’ plans to use the church’s nonprofit to establish more affordable housing units in Liberty Hill is admirable.
While Boeing has generally not given grants to faith-based organizations, The Charity Foundation has been an exception: It has received Boeing’s backing for projects including the STEM initiative and after-school programs.
Financial support for the affordable housing initiative is under consideration, Keating said.
During a recent town hall event addressing affordable housing, evictions and foreclosures, Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, encouraged leaders to “think big” about addressing the region’s housing crisis by changing their conventional thinking about who should own and rent property.
The idea of having a church as a landlord, he said, may be a good one.