Charleston, South Carolina Habitat for Humanity

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Prospering early as a port and trade center, Charleston, South Carolina is home to a large and broad collection of historic architecture that continues to serve residential and commercial functions in the city and drives a major tourism industry.  The city’s Old and Historic District was the first historic district in the United States and now comprises more than 1,000 acres and 4,800 buildings.  Like many American cities, Charleston experienced significant economic difficulties in the 20th century, leading to vacancy, disinvestment and blight in the urban core.

During the tenure of Mayor Joseph P. Riley, first elected in 1975, the city has undergone a significant economic and cultural revival with an emphasis on historic preservation, community revitalization, urban design and planning, and housing affordability.  While Charleston experienced a housing boom during the 2000s, development was mostly focused outside of the city and new housing remained relatively expensive.  There are many senior, fixed-income families living in older homes in urban Charleston.  For these families, new homes are unaffordable and maintenance on their historic home is expensive.

The department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has designated Charleston an “entitlement city,” qualifying it for an annual allotment of federal funds to be applied to local housing projects.     

The Affiliate

Founded in 1989, Charleston Habitat for Humanity (CHFH) serves the urban core of the city, where it has completed 75  houses as of late 2010.  In 2009, the affiliate began rehab work on existing homes, taking projects like painting, window replacement, roof repair and bathroom accessibility.  At present, CHFH has rehabilitated five houses, most of them dating from the 1950s or 1960s and none of them considered historic or located in a historic district.  Under the traditional Habitat model, new homes are built for first-time homebuyers only.  In Charleston, the rehabilitation program expands the affiliate’s ability to serve the community because in order to qualify, a family must already own and live in the home to be rehabbed.

 Charleston Habitat’s Homeowner Home Rehabilitation Program (HHRP) finances the repair work with a forgivable loan at zero percent interest.  Qualified homeowners must have clear title to their home, be current with mortgage and tax payments, and, consistent with the Habitat model, must be willing to put in 25 hours of “sweat equity” in the rehabilitation process.  The program covers up to $20,000 in repair work.  After the completion of the project, the homeowner must own and live in their house for a period of up to 20 years to meet the requirements of their forgivable loan,  which is forgiven at a rate of between 5% and 10% per year, dependent on the family’s income. 

Several years ago, CHFH began considering the idea of doing an affordable historic rehab, but had difficulty locating the right building and family.   

The Local Preservation Partner

Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF) was founded in 1947 with the mission of protecting the buildings, landscapes, and cultural resources that contribute to Charleston’s heritage. As the first organization in the nation to use revolving funds to save historic buildings, the Foundation has more than 50 years’ experience funding neighborhood revitalization and understanding the value of geographically concentrated investment.

In 1995, HCF launched the Neighborhood Impact Initiative.  Historically significant properties in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods were successfully rehabilitated and sold to families with ties to the neighborhood. The Initiative was designed to act as a catalyst for the preservation of entire neighborhoods.  HCF used designated funds for these projects, selling at a loss in order to fulfill its dual goal of restoring a vernacular house with some architectural merit and making homeownership on the Charleston peninsula a possibility for a long-time resident.  The Foundation was searching for expertise in the homeowner candidate selection process as well as a preservation-minded contractor. 

Site Selection & Partnership

In 2009 the City of Charleston’s Department of Housing and Community Development, knowing that Charleston Habitat and Historic Charleston Foundation were partnering but had struggled to find a suitable home and qualified family (earning below 60% of the area median family income), asked CHFH to review the feasibility of rehabilitating the property at 66 Lee Street. Owner-occupied since 1970, the house had fallen into disrepair and experienced severe foundation settlement. CHFH calculated that by jointly leveraging its own funds, city-awarded HUD funds, and funds contributed by Historic Charleston Foundation, there was enough capital to complete the project. The family living at 66 Lee Street qualified for federal relocation funds, permitting the construction to proceed more quickly with the family living elsewhere during the process. 


Constructed in the early 1900s, 66 Lee Street is a two-story timber framed single house (a single pile dwelling with a central hall passage and one room on either side.  The narrow gable end of a Charleston single house fronts the street and the side porch is called a “piazza”). Since the home falls just outside of the Old City District, it is beyond the jurisdiction of the city’s Board of Architectural Review.  HCF and CHFH worked together to plan the preservation treatment of the building and HCF has remained in an advisory position with CHFH’s construction team throughout the process. The rehabilitation took place during the spring, summer and fall of 2010. Work addressed interior and exterior deterioration and corrected major foundation settlement, which had led to exterior safety problems and rendered windows inoperable. In order to solve the settlement problem and bring the house into compliance with FEMA floodplain requirements, the structure was lifted 24 inches and set on a new foundation. A specialist contractor used a cable system to straighten the building and level the floors. Siding has been retained and repaired wherever possible, and the historic windows and shutters have been repaired as possible, and the side piazza has been reconstructed after falling into severe disrepair.

Preservation & Sustainability

Because the house’s interior was deteriorated and a full restoration was neither financially feasible nor practical for the family, the organizations have focused preservation efforts on the exterior, including the restoration of original 6 over 6 single glazed window sashes on the primary elevations of the building. The interior of the house has been stripped back to the studs, furnishing an opportunity to comprehensively install insulation and HVAC and setting the stage to receive Earthcraft certification. According to CHFH Construction Manager Dan Jones, Earthcraft is a green building rating system similar to LEED, but it is specifically designed for the climate of the southeast, is better suited for a nonprofit builder or contractor, and is more cost effective for CHFH to implement.

Charleston Habitat’s use of Earthcraft also aligns with Historic Charleston Foundation’s environmental values. April Wood, Manager of Easements and Technical Outreach at HCF, cited that “sustainability is an important focus of Historic Charleston Foundation.” Moreover, she noted the balance of preservation, sustainability, and cost ais a key factor in the success of the project. “The point is to make the house livable for the family and to retain as much historic material as possible.  More flexibility is required on this type of project than a standard restoration project”.

The retention of the house’s original single-glazed windows is an example of this flexibility. The windows are important to the integrity of the exterior but their relatively low R-value (a measure of resistance to thermal transmissivity) poses a challenge to the thermal performance of the building. By redoubling energy saving efforts elsewhere in the interior— including increased insulation—Jones was able to keep the original windows on the primary elevations of the house while meeting overall energy standards required by Earthcraft.

Lead Paint

The lead paint abatement at 66 Lee Street—Charleston Habitat’s first—was funded by a $14,500 federal lead grant.  While a contractor trained in abatement was onsite throughout, Dan Jones is also becoming a certified supervisor in order to handle future projects.  He noted that although the process has been both a construction and administrative challenge, the organizations are pleased to be able to eliminate this hazard to the family.

Physical Fabric

The CHFH construction team has worked to restore and reinstall the original window sashes, as well as to remove and restore original wood siding, doors and shutters.  Some of these original elements were severely deteriorated and either broke or fell apart during the rehabilitation, forcing a search for appropriate modern replacements.  When the house was elevated, the existing chimney became destabilized and needed to either be restored or demolished.  After the construction team evaluated the cost of their options and HCF discussed the preservation implications of loss, the partners agreed that the best course of action was to remove the chimney.  Although Jones cites issues like these as a challenge, he said they have taught his team to be flexible with expectations and a shifting scope of work.

Keys to Success

The affordable rehabilitation of 66 Lee Street would not have been possible without the cooperative funding and complimentary capacities of Charleston Habitat, Historic Charleston Foundation, and the City of Charleston. The unique three-way partnership has allowed each of the participants to bring their resources to bear on a larger project than they could have handled as individual organizations. The City of Charleston had the tools to identify a family in need and the ability to channel $67,700 in HUD HOME funds to seed the rehab and lead abatement. CHFH’s experience in evaluating partner family income, building relationships with homeowners, and teaching financial management ensures the project will have a deeper impact on housing affordability while preventing displacement of the homeowners. Charleston Habitat’s construction and project management capacities were critical to executing the rehab, as was its ability to identify and employ subcontractors and coordinate volunteers to work on the project. Historic Charleston Foundation contributed approximately $60,000 for siding repair, window repair and replacement, door repair, historic shutter repair, painting, piazza reconstruction, Earthcraft technical review, HVAC, and leveling the floor systems.

Including Habitat’s contribution of approximately $26,000, the total budget for the rehab of 66 Lee Street was just over $180,000. Although this is a high dollar figure, these funding streams all were earmarked for affordable rehab—and in the case of HCF monies, it also had to be used to retain as much historic fabric as possible. Additionally, per CHFH requirements, the family will pay 10% of CHFH costs  back into a revolving construction fund; the remaining costs of all three organizations  will be put into a forgivable loan for the family of 20 years forgiven at 5% per year, ensuring  the family contines to own and live in the rehabbed house.


By leveraging their own funds on a larger project, all three partner groups share in greater overall programmatic benefits than they could have achieved individually.  The City of Charleston is conducting a master plan of the larger Cooper River Bridge neighborhood, a project which will include transportation, streetscape, and urban design improvements along Lee Street where the rehab house is located.  The Department of Housing and Community Development’s investment in housing rehabilitation and affordability in this neighborhood reinforces the City’s larger master planning effort and demonstrates a deep commitment to its mission of fostering community and economic development there. 

With the demolition of the old bridge, new downtown  acreage has opened up even closer to Lee Street—land that the City has projected to be mixed-income, market rate and workforce housing that integrates with the existing neighborhood. When the new Cooper River Bridge was built nearby, the City moved nine homes that were being displaced by the bridge’s construction to Lee Street. The relocated homes and the rehabilitation of 66 Lee Street are transforming a once deteriorated block.

For Charleston Habitat, the project is an opportunity to actively maintain the historic value of one neighborhood where the affiliate works, benefitting both the partner family and larger community. Moreover, the undertaking serves as a pilot project for future rehabilitations that might take place within the historic district—demonstrating CHFH’s capacity to execute a successful affordable historic project while maintaining high preservation standards. This may be increasingly relevant given the city’s proposed northward expansion of the Old and Historic District to include the Lee Street property and much of the surrounding neighborhood.

For Historic Charleston Foundation, the rehab has been an opportunity to meet the core programmatic goal of its Neighborhood Impact Initiative while risking less financially and helping Habitat and the City meet their own goals. “We’ve learned, taking into account our past experience going it alone, that it’s essential to have partners to spread out the expertise and funding” said HCF’s April Wood.

Looking Ahead

Charleston Habitat, Historic Charleston Foundation, and the Department of Housing and Community Development all agree that the rehabilitation of 66 Lee Street is a project worth replicating, and one that has provided lessons for future partnership. Construction Manager Dan Jones noted that budgeting the job, coordinating the Habitat volunteer force and scheduling subcontractors would all move more smoothly in the future. 

April Wood added that from Historic Charleston Foundation’s perspective, the Lee Street rehab is a test case for longer-term focus on rehabilitating Charleston’s freedman’s cottages— a building type that is unique to the city and is currently under threat. For HCF, the ability to focus on a building type and neighborhood (the cottages are generally grouped together) is a further opportunity to preserve historically affordable housing while calling attention to a dwindling but significant local resource.

Geona Johnson, Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said that her agency has already allocated funding to Charleston Habitat for historic rehabs in 2010-2011. “With appropriate partnerships we can do it; alone we prefer not to because of cost. When we can leverage, we’re willing to do it because people who own these historic properties can’t always afford to rehab on their own. It provides revitalization for a block and an opportunity for a family.”

Charleston Habitat Executive Director Jeremy Browning advises that affiliates interested in undertaking similar rehab projects take time to develop the program thoroughly and be willing to have the right expectations. This includes thinking through the process with the construction manager, providing adequately for the cost and process of lead and asbestos abatement, and making different use of staff and volunteer time than on a traditional new build. For example, while CHFH averages 15 volunteers on a new build, shifts of five or six are enough for a rehab. Browning recommended that affiliates speak with other not-for-profits who engage in rehabilitation work, as well as other professionals who deal with issues common to older buildings—for example the inspectors who staff South Carolina’s State Housing Trust program.

“Many affiliates will jump at the chance to make their dollars go farther,” he said.