Charleston is Changing…and That’s a Good Thing if the Planning is Done Right!

City planning is vital for a growing area like Charleston. 

Quite often these days we hear long-time residents of Charleston saying that “Charleston is just not the same place that it used to be anymore.” “There are too many people.” “Density is killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” “Traffic is impossible.” 

As the old saying goes…nothing is more constant than change! What is happening in Charleston is growth, physical and economic growth, and as healthy as that is, it’s unsettling to many people.

What we have to understand is that Charleston is a basically healthy city, and healthy cities by definition will likely grow. What most people do not grasp is that there are only two ways for a city to grow—up or out. 

Charleston’s Residential Growth 

Since World War II Charleston has continued to grow out from its historic core on the peninsula and in the direction of cheaper land and more privacy. 

West of the Ashley, East of the Cooper, up the neck to North Charleston and Goose Creek, all of these areas have boomed in the post-war suburbanization of the Charleston metro area and all of them are now wondering what the next phase of life for these suburbs will be and how they can continue to be relevant in the context of a city that is growing at a rate faster than even our country as a whole.

How City Planning Is Important

But “Growing Out” has stretched our public funds and infrastructure to the breaking point. Having to build new roads, bridges and schools with each additional new suburb literally taxes our citizens beyond the capacity of our tax base to deliver. 

When it comes to the infrastructure necessary to support our insatiable appetite for outward growth, we Charlestonians are now having to admit that we have champagne taste, and a beer budget! 

Our growth problems have outgrown our financial ability to reasonably solve them. As a result, Charleston is now left with a community of unaffordable housing, forced automobile ownership with no alternatives for those who cannot or do not care to drive, under-funded schools, and the list goes on.

So what is the solution for balancing growth and building healthy communities? 

The first thing to do is to determine what the basic needs of the community are and to be sure that those needs are met first. Food, clothing, and shelter rank high on the list of basic needs. 

Having those things close at hand is essential to a healthy community. Having accessible employment that pays a livable wage is how we achieve those first three basic needs. 

Low unemployment and a living wage for workers is foundational. Investing in accessible, viable, public transit ensures that those who cannot live close to work will have the ability to get there at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time-frame. When employees can’t get to work, we ALL suffer.

What’s the Best Way To Use Charleston’s Space?

So what’s a growing city to do? Outward growth no longer being viable, upward growth becomes the only alternative for a growing healthy city. Many folks may wonder exactly what that upward growth might look like in Charleston. The answer to that question is simple: taller buildings and denser housing in the right places—exactly the scenario that is happening in our city today. 

The proverbial single-family home on the quarter-acre lot has NEVER paid its way in terms of taxes. The same infrastructure that serves one home on one lot could easily serve many homes on that same lot with a denser design without much additional cost to the taxpayer. 

Residential Density

The problem is that people feel threatened by density and they have sometimes even been led to believe that something might be “taken away” from their single-family neighborhoods if we decide to build more densely. This is simply not the case.

Charleston’s West Ashley and James Island suburbs were built out in the single-family plan. Those neighborhoods are now more than 50 years old and will almost certainly remain single-family. 

No one is going to build high-rises in neighborhoods like Avondale or Byrnes Downs…but there are hundreds of acres of undeveloped land in the Sam Rittenberg corridor that could easily support higher-rise buildings. The commercial character of Sam Rittenberg is also a good fit for locating housing nearby. 

The Sam Rittenberg right of way is excessively wide and could easily support bike/pedestrian lanes and public transit between Citadel Mall and the Navy Yard area on the other side of the North Bridge. 

This denser housing is no threat to the existing neighborhoods and will link transit and walkable housing to infrastructure that is already publicly owned in the area…saving millions in tax dollars for other projects like flooding. Sam Rittenberg is generally also a higher elevation than most of the rest of West Ashley.

Charleston Is Growing, Whether You Like It Or Not

As Charleston grows, our goal should be to pull growth in and to force it up so that we optimize the infrastructure dollars we spend. The first-tier suburbs of West Ashley and James Island will by necessity become more urbanized and denser in the next few years simply because these suburbs are immediately adjacent to the historic core of the city and are generally more affordable than downtown. 

The thing we need to remember is that what is happening to Charleston is generally healthy growth. We should all strive to be part of the planning for that growth so that when it comes, we will know that there is nothing to be afraid of. We cannot stop growth, but we can certainly plan it and direct it in a citizen-driven way.

Charleston Currents: Charlie Smith and His Years as an LGBTQ Realtor

Charlie recently gave his insight and perspective with an article featured in Charleston Currents about what he has learned in his 23 years as not just an LGBTQ-friendly realtor in Charleston, but also as a member of the LGBTQ community.

FOCUS: What I’ve learned in 23 years as an LGBTQ Charleston Realtor

I moved home to Charleston 23 years ago after two years at Clemson working on a master’s degree in planning and 12 years of living in Miami. Soon after returning, I walked into Dudley’s on King Street and ran into an old acquaintance who had lived up the street from me in graduate school. He asked what I intended to do for a living.

I told him that I intended to establish South Carolina’s first openly gay-owned and -operated real estate brokerage, marketing primarily to the LGBTQ community. His immediate response was “You’ll never make a dime in this town!” I never forgot those words. I immediately set out to prove him wrong.

The History of LGBTQ Real Estate in Charleston

Real estate was a tight-knit business community back then. It was not all that welcoming to people who had no intention of working under an established broker, but rather who planned to start an office from scratch. It was also 1996 and the internet was in its infancy as a real estate tool. What that meant was that our new venture, CSA Real Estate Services, would have to be built by connecting real people interested in a common cause rather than by sending out a mass email, a tool that did not yet exist broadly. I came to realize that the common cause (and our company’s specialization) needed to be that of protecting LGBTQ families and individuals from discrimination in the real estate, insurance and finance industries.

When our first website went up in 1996, it included a lengthy article on exactly how LGBTQ people could be quickly disadvantaged in a real estate transaction if they were unaware of dangerous legal pitfalls, such as an attorney not asking about the titling of property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship to prevent disgruntled heirs from seizing half of an LGBTQ couple’s assets following a death. Straight Realtors who wanted a share of the LGBTQ market would often say things like “I would never discriminate against a gay person,” but in reality, they had no idea at all how to legally protect LGBTQ people in a real estate transaction. They thought that not being mean was sufficient.

At the time, Charleston had a sizable LGBTQ community, but it was deeply closeted and somewhat self-destructive. At meetings of the Lowcountry Gay and Lesbian Alliance in 1996, last names on name tags were prohibited because members were afraid of being outed at work. This was no way to run an LGBTQ community. A small group of us who recognized that problem decided to do something about it. In 1998, the Alliance for Full Acceptance was born. Charleston and South Carolina have never been the same. CSA Real Estate Services became an advocate and sponsor of many of the early efforts that sprang from the founding of AFFA and continues to support its mission today.

But nothing has changed our world more rapidly and more completely than the instant availability of vast amounts of knowledge that exploded with the advent of the internet. LGBTQ people suddenly had the ability to define themselves to the world instead of being marginalized by it. The networks we began to build back then continue to tell us who is working for and against our LGBTQ citizens. They help us mobilize responses. And they help us celebrate who we are. This was all new in 1996.

LGBTQ Real Estate in Charleston Today

Much has changed in 23 years, including the establishment of the legal right to marry, but sadly LGBTQ people can still have their wedding announced in the morning paper and be fired from their job and receive an eviction notice by the close of the business day because of that announcement . That’s why CSA Real Estate Services is still here and still engaged 23 years later.

As Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without demand and struggle. It never has and it never will.”

Meet Charlie Smith

Broker in Charge for CSA Real Estate Services since 1996.

Charlie returned to his native South Carolina in July of 1996 and discovered that there was a need in his home state for the same kind of advocacy in the LGBT community as he had found in Miami Beach and Miami in the 1980’s. In 1997 Charlie took the leap of becoming the first openly gay real estate broker in South Carolina to market primarily to the LGBT community. Within a matter of weeks Charlie realized that he had correctly gauged the market in Charleston as a destination for preservation-minded LGBT investors seeking a welcoming southern community. This became the foundation for CSA Real Estate Services, which has continued to serve the real estate and community needs of LGBT South Carolinians and their allies since 1997.

Charlie was able to spot early LGBT growth trends in the Wagener Terrace, North Central, West Ashley and James Island neighborhoods of Charleston and has been instrumental in redevelopment efforts in each. As these neighborhoods and others began to attract more LGBT residents, Charlie collaborated with other LGBT leaders who were coming to the same conclusion that Charleston needed an organization dedicated to creating a healthier LGBT community and which would advocate on many levels for the betterment of our community and state. The Alliance for Full Acceptance came into being in 1998 as a result of this and through its networking, advocacy and education programs it has become one of the largest and most respected social justice organizations in the South. Charlie served as Vice President for the organization’s first seven years.

In 2002 Charlie became the first openly gay non-incumbent to run for political office in South Carolina finishing with 41% of the vote in the race against the notoriously anti-gay John Graham Altman in House District 119. He ran again in 2004 and finished with 48% of the vote. He was credited with having ended the political career of Mr. Altman whose support within his party was clearly waning.

LGBTQ Couple’s Guide to Home Buying

For most gay and lesbian couples, buying a house together is not only an indication of a major commitment to each other, it is more often than not the most expensive single purchase you will ever make as an individual or as a couple. Because most property laws were written to protect individuals and married couples (who are viewed under the laws of many states as one entity) it is crucial that as gay and lesbian couples we understand that we must create the contractual and legal documentation which will provide us with the protection granted automatically to married couples. If these simple protections are not created, the death of yourself or your partner may result in a new partnership with family members of the deceased. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing…sometimes it’s a disastrous burden for a grief-stricken survivor!

If the general rule of purchasing real estate is “Location, location, location” then the gay and lesbian rule of real estate should be “Get a lawyer, get a lawyer, get a lawyer! And only a real estate lawyer…preferably one who already understands the critical issues of gay and lesbian property ownership.

Here are a couple of major pitfalls to be aware of when purchasing property as a same gender couple:

If you want your rights to your property to go only to your partner immediately upon your death and outside of probate, you must take title to your property by JOINT TENANCY WITH RIGHT OF SURVIVORSHIP…not individually and not just by joint tenancy. Taking title any other way will require probate upon your death and may result in the deceased partner’s “heirs at law” becoming owners of the property along with the surviving partner. The heirs may then sue for partition and force the surviving partner to sell or move out of the property.

In some states special laws called “Homestead laws” protect the rights of a spouse and/or minor children of a married person or a parent. These are not to be confuse with “Homestead exemptions”, which refer to taxation. If you were previously married, then you later purchase property with your partner, but your divorce was not finalized or was flawed, your former spouse may have rights to your property…your minor child may also have rights to your property even if the divorce was finalized. If your former spouse has custody of your child, you may be dealing with your former spouse as a partner in real estate ownership again because of his or her status as guardian for your child if you are not careful with how you take title to your property.

Sometimes one partner may have significantly more money to invest in a property than the other partner. Unless the partner with more money invested in the property is willing to share 50/50 with the other partner, consideration should be given to other forms of protecting each persons interests. 50/50 partnership may not be possible or desirable under certain circumstances. Sharing a home together is often more important than the percentage of ownership each partner has in their home. Perhaps one partner already owned the home in which a new couple is living. If the real concern is more about the security of the partner who has no ownership interest in the home, then provisions to protect the security of the non-owning partner might be more easily made by one’s will rather than by changing the title. Get good gay-friendly and gay-knowledgeable legal advise before you purchase property with your partner.

Equally important as deciding how to take title to a property is deciding the smaller issues such as:

  • How do we pick a competent real estate agent?
  • How do we know which neighborhood is gay-friendly?
  • How do we know that the banks and insurance companies won’t deny our applications because we’re both of the same gender?

The first step in answering all three of these questions is to familiarize yourself with the gay community in the area where you plan to move. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of anybody. Negative responses to your questions (or your sexuality) can be just as informative as positive ones when you are trying to get the scoop on local attitudes. Sometimes a friend in the area can give you all the local information you need. Sometimes the internet and internet chat rooms can be helpful. Bars and book stores (all kinds) generally carry local gay papers which will fill you in on what’s happening in the community and may even have ads for local real estate agents. In Charleston, SC the best source of information is The Alliance for Full Acceptance at AFFA has a full -time staff ready to assist the LGBT community at any time.

Be aware that just because a real estate agent advertises in a gay paper or can be linked to from a website doesn’t mean he or she is a competent real estate professional. By the same token, just because a real estate agent is gay does not necessarily mean that he or she is familiar with gay and lesbian legal issues affecting real estate. They don’t teach that stuff in Real Estate School! Get names of agents from every source you can, but ask around about all the agents before you call one. Internet rating sites can be helpful, but unfortunately there is absolutely no verification of the statements made about agents/vendors on sites like Angie’s List. It is a good idea to weigh all reviews together rather than to be concerned about one particularly negative review. Disgruntled employees and ex-spouses can submit reviews to these sites and you’ll never know if they are true or not…and agents cannot have the bad reviews removed without the permission of the reviewer. It’s better to look at ALL the reviews and do your own internet research to get a general idea of the level of an agent’s integrity.

It is important to understand that most states require real estate agents to educate clients and customers as to the agency relationships allowed in that particular state upon their initial contact. South Carolina Association of Realtors requires a written contract between any real estate agent and any party he or she represents. Make sure you understand whether you are considered by the agent to be a client or a customer. An agent has obligations to a client under the law that he doesn’t have to a customer. It is critical that you understand those relationships and obligations before you discuss confidential information with a real estate agent. He or she may not be representing you at all and may be required under the law to disclose anything you say to the party that he or she does represent.

Finding a gay-friendly neighborhood is often the easiest task in moving. If you can’t find a gay-friendly neighborhood, get directions to the nearest historic district. It’s a safe bet you’ll be as close as you’re going to get on the first try! Take note of whose real estate signs are in the neighborhood and ask around about the reputation and integrity of these people before you consider calling them. The company with the most signs may not be the company that is going to give you the best representation. Sometimes the smaller firms are the best choice to represent you because they perhaps don’t subscribe to the large corporate mentality of emphasizing volume sales over client representation.

Competent real estate agents will have good banking, legal, home inspection and insurance contacts. Ask the bankers how they view applications from same gender couples and if they will allow your partner to insure his or her belongings (contents) under your homeowner’s policy if his or her name is not on the deed and the mortgage. Ask the lawyer what he knows about protecting gay couples. If they don’t mention the Joint Tenancy with right of survivorship issue, get another attorney. Also know that while LGBT couples can make legal agreements between themselves, there is absolutely no law in many states that requires ANY third party to be bound by those agreements. Remember this when you are drafting healthcare powers of attorney and similar documents. Contrary to what many uninformed attorneys will tell you, just because you and your partner make an agreement does not make it law.

Ask the insurance people if the companies they represent will insure your partner’s contents if you do not plan to list your partner on the deed or the mortgage. If the answer is no, then your partner will be required to purchase a renter’s policy to cover his or her contents. This means two deductibles in the event of a loss that affects both of you…one for you and one for your partner. This can be substantial in the event of a hurricane where some insurers now have the right to increase their deductibles to as much as 4% of the policy limit for coastal communities in the event of a declared hurricane ($4,000 on a $100,000 policy, plus 4% of your partner’s policy limit). If you are planning to insure your cars with the same company that has your homeowner’s insurance, ask if the companies they represent give a multiple-car ownership discount to same-gender couples. State Farm doesn’t…Traveler’s and some others do.

Don’t be afraid to demand what you need in making the biggest investment of your life and don’t be afraid to demand what you need to protect it. There are important differences for gay and lesbian couples when it comes to buying and protecting our property that married couples would never even have to consider. The laws were written for them, not for us. Gay and Lesbian home buyers must go the extra step to protect themselves, both under the law and from the law.