Post and Courier
By the editorial staff

There’s no question our area needs more affordable housing, particularly in downtown Charleston, one of our region’s major employment centers and one of the easiest places to get by without the added expense of owning a car. It’s also where land is both pricey and scarce.

So we understand why Charleston County Council is interested in using its underdeveloped 6.5 acres at 995 Morrison Drive to create more affordable housing; what’s important is getting the details right. And while County Council voted 5-4 last week to place a deed restriction that requires affordable housing on the entire 6.5-acre site, its work has only just begun.

That’s because we really have no clue what this vote will actually mean.

What will be the language of this deed restriction? How many affordable units might it require? How will the county define “affordable” or “attainable” in the deed restriction? How long would those units have to remain affordable? Beyond those units, however many there are, how much of the property would be developable for other uses? And, of course, how much money is the county willing to sacrifice to place affordable units there, and what does that work out to per unit?

The answers are not only an important part of the deal; they are the deal. We agree with Councilman Herb Sass who called the vote “a useless exercise.”

To its credit, Charleston County hired an affordable housing consultant after it tried and failed to persuade voters to raise their property taxes last year to create a special affordable housing fund — an effort that was doomed by the same sort of vagueness that undermines our confidence in this newest endeavor. The consultant is being asked to recommend what specifically the Morrison Drive deed restriction should look like. Why the concept was rushed to an initial vote last week — months before the consultant is expected to report and possibly clarify the details — is a bit of a head-scratcher.

While speeding toward the deed restriction, some mocked the Charleston Housing Authority’s “laughable” — as Councilman Brantley Moody called it — offer of $1 million for one acre of the parcel. But it looks to us as though such a sale likely would lead to more affordable housing at this location faster than anything the county is considering, given the authority’s proven track record, which includes the impressive Grace Homes project recently completed less than a mile away. And the big idea is similar: The county accepts less money for the land in exchange for assurances that affordable housing will be built there. Selling the entire parcel for something close to its estimated $30 million value also could dramatically advance affordable housing, if the proceeds are designated for a new housing trust fund.

So while the council’s Democrats might favor the deed restriction, with so little information about why there is a need to rush it, we share the concerns of Councilwoman Jenny Honeycutt, who fears that the county might be repeating its $33 million debacle of a public-private deal to renovate the former Charleston Naval Hospital that went bad. “This is a cooked-up, backroom deal that has been brought to us by who knows who,” she said, “and it is really similar to how I think the whole Naval Hospital turned out, and it is scary to me to think where this could go.”

There’s an easy way to dispel this criticism and skepticism: That’s by holding discussions and negotiations in public, and well enough in advance of any vote to ensure that the public is able to respond to anything that does in fact look like a sweetheart deal, or even just a bad deal.

As we said when this idea was floated publicly earlier this fall, it’s essential to scrutinize the numbers — which will be shaped by the deed restriction, among other factors — to see whether the county will be getting enough new affordable housing to justify the money the county will lose by placing a deed restriction on the property. Those trying to defend the county’s plan simply by saying affordable housing is good and needed on the peninsula are both right and wrong.

Ultimately, it’s the details — not the concept — that will define success here. (In the case of the Naval Hospital, the concept of using a private developer to help create county office space was a good one, but failure to tend to the details caused it to go south in a dramatic and costly way.)

Those details must be worked out — in open session — if County Council has any hope of generating more public trust that it actually knows what it’s doing here.

So what ultimately matters is not last week’s vote but the upcoming work to flesh out the details of any deed restriction or affordable housing deal. We agree with Councilman Rob Wehrman, who likened last week’s vote to passing a resolution, which is nonbinding, has no force of law and can be reversed. “Whether it’s a substantive step or not, hopefully it leads to those,” he said.

We believe the best chance of that happening will be if County Council takes its future steps in public, not behind closed doors.