Downtown Charleston lacks housing, study finds

A lack of available housing in downtown Charleston’s is “stymieing growth,” according to an assessment by a national group released Tuesday.

Patrick Bowen, president of Bowen National Research, told the audience at a Charleston Area Alliance “Think Tank” event on Tuesday that much of downtown Charleston’s housing is occupied, and 90 percent of those residents are renters.

“That’s normal for a downtown area. You don’t get a lot of owner-occupied units. It’s typically more multi-family rentals,” Bowen said.

About half of occupied housing in the city as a whole consists of renters, Bowen said.

The study focused on downtown Charleston, the boundaries of which were outlined as the railroad tracks to the north, the Kanawha River to the south, Morris Street to the east and the Elk River to the west.

It found that more than 20,000 people commute into Kanawha County for work every day, Bowen said, which creates opportunity for downtown.

“People would live here if the housing was available,” Bowen said, summarizing a focus group discussion that took place earlier Tuesday morning.

Recent and planned development—about $100 million worth, including an improved Civic Center and hotels—in downtown could become attractive to potential residents. And the city needs to be prepared.

“This is a positive environment for people to want to be both in the job market and the housing market,” Bowen said.

The report is still in its draft form, but Bowen said it should be available in about two weeks. The study will be published on the Charleston Area Alliance’s website.

The study was funded by the West Virginia Community Partnership Program, which is through the legislature.

The study also found a high amount of substandard housing, which indicates that people will take what they can get, he said.

“I would think that one of the objectives of the city would be ‘Let’s raise the standard. Let’s raise what kind of housing we want for our citizens, as well as our prospective citizens,’” Bowen said.

Bowen made a handful of recommendations related to downtown housing, including promoting development opportunities by identifying and working with local and out-of-state developers; looking at other communities’ downtown development promotions; and, develop incentives to encourage downtown living and development.

People who are interested in relocating in Charleston are going to go elsewhere if they can’t find the quality of housing they want, Bowen said.

There’s also a lack of for-sale housing in Charleston as a whole, especially in downtown.

“In terms of available supply, there’s almost nothing available for us to evaluate,” Bowen said, but added a lot of developers will build and sell without listing properties.

Available citywide housing as of February showed 299 homes for sale with a median list price of $164,000. Homes typically stay on the market about 91 days, which Bowen said is normal.

In downtown Charleston, for-sale housing stays on the market for 104 days and has a median list price of $183,000.

A home’s median year built is 1956. Charleston’s housing stock in general is old, Bowen said.

“A lot of old product is bringing down the pricing, but the development here in downtown is newer stuff, so the average year here is 1990,” Bowen said.

Community members who were surveyed for the study said downtown Charleston’s greatest housing needs include housing for single people and young professionals, particularly apartments and condos. Those surveyed also said adaptive reuse should be a higher priority for developers than new construction.

Bowen was also told that household incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 are likely to have the greatest need in downtown Charleston.

That was surprising, Bowen said.

“That group is not the one that people say need the housing. That’s usually much lower,” Bowen said. “This same back to tell us, look you probably need some moderate housing.”

But Bowen added later that those whose incomes increase over time will want something available as their circumstances change.

“Your income increases, okay now I want to move up to something nicer. Well, where are you going to move in downtown Charleston? You don’t have that choice,” Bowen said.

While a lack of vacancies can be great for a building owner or property manager, it doesn’t give the housing market any room to grow, Bowen said.

“If you don’t have anything available, you’ve got problems. The landlords can defer maintenance. You can raise your rents and extraordinary fees and people will absorb it,” Bowen said.

“You need some vacancies in the market so people can move in and out and do what they need to do.”

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com, 304-348-5102 or follow @rachelmolenda on Twitter.

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