Lead or Lose: Charleston’s Mayor Answers the Call
Episode 14 – April 5, 2021
Charleston, South Carolina Mayor John Tecklenberg joins Arch MI PolicyCast for an in-depth interview on how the southern tourist destination copes with housing and climate-change challenges.
Kirk Willison: [00:00:09] When John Tecklenburg was sworn in as mayor of Charleston, South Carolina in January 2016, he had a hard act to follow. Two generations of Charlestonians had never known a mayor not named Joseph P. Riley who held that office for 40 years. Tecklenburg, on the other hand, had never served in elected office, but as roots and Charleston are plenty deep. His great great-grandfather established a corner grocery store in the city in 1867. A great uncle started a tire and battery company there in 1919, and ran it for 60 years. Tecklenburg left home after high school, venturing North for a degree in chemistry from Washington DC’s Georgetown university, and later for postgraduate studies at Boston’s Berkeley College of Music. He returned to Charleston, founded an oil company, ran it for nearly 20 years and later was appointed by Riley and the city council, as director of the department of economic development. It would be an understatement to say he’s been regularly tested since becoming mayor. Five months before his election, Charleston and America was rocked by the massacre of nine African-Americans at the famed Mother Emanuel AME church. His city is frequently flooded by rising sea waters due to a change in climate and Charleston, always a favorite spot for tourist, is now attracting an ever increasing number of permanent residents, especially during this pandemic. As a result, affordable housing is scarce. Any one of those problems could wreak havoc on a political career, but three at once! Well, PolicyCast wanted to learn what Tecklenburg could teach us about leading in difficult times. Well, John Tecklenburg, thank you very much for joining us on the Arch Mortgage Insurance PolicyCast. You know, living here in Washington, as I do, we’re really used to seeing the federal government solve the issues, but on this podcast today, I’m really excited and eager to look at how local leadership solves problems. And you’re a great example as the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, that you’ve aggressively decided to tackle some very complex issues. So, thank you very much for being with us today.
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:02:49] Thank you. It’s a pleasure and I recall meeting you in Washington at the mayor’s conference year before last. And I look forward to getting back together in person for a few things like that from time to time. So I thank you for thinking of me and glad to discuss some of these issues with you on the local level.
Kirk Willison: [00:03:09] Well, thank you, Mr. Mayor, in your 2021 State of the City Address, you focused on four priorities. Controlling COVID, increasing affordable housing, addressing racial inequity and making progress against climate change. And I’d like to focus on those last three. Why did you choose to highlight those topics and what can you share about Charleston’s past that makes them so relevant today?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:03:34] Wow. So, I think they’re all interconnected and so relevant today. Of course Charleston, like many vibrant cities across the country, it’s experiencing affordability challenges in housing. But I think that Charleston is uniquely challenged or impacted this year, we’re such a great place to live and folks have found now, particularly professionals that they can live anywhere and work remotely or many have. You wouldn’t believe the housing market here has gone crazy and it was already wild to start with. And we were already at a point, particularly around the urban area of Charleston to where normal working, folks working families, policemen, firemen, nurses, teachers, couldn’t afford to live and they were forced to go 30 and now 40 miles away and it creates traffic jams. You’ve seen that pattern all over the country and it was happening here, it is happening here. So, so that’s one reason why housing affordability is such a critical issue for our city. It also is an issue because of endemic, deep rooted racial inequities. All that housing dynamic that I just described over the last couple of decades really has led to intense gentrification. And you add back to racial inequities that exist in economic empowerment, education, wealth. Housing. It’s really in all areas aspects of our life and, and it’s something that Charleston had been working on already, particularly since the terrible tragedy and mother Emanuel now almost six years ago. So we are deeply committed to issues of equity and diversity and housing is a big part of that. And thirdly, you mentioned sea level rise and climate change. I maintain that it’s the existential threat to our city. We are a Harbor city, a port city. We’re an area of South Carolina we call the low country for good reason because we’re close to sea level. Listen to this, we’ve been measuring the sea level in our Harbor for over a hundred years. Well, in that period of time, sea level has risen about 14 inches and that doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but, but here’s the kicker. Over the last 20 years, the rate of increase has quadrupled. It’s now four times faster than it has been over the last hundred years. Very reliably and this is just a mayor making this up. This is based on good science from NOAA and other authorities, we’ll see another two to three feet of sea level rise in our Harbor in the next 50 years. That will put most of the peninsula of Charleston on a very high tide, underwater. So, like I said, we’ve either got to adapt and protect ourselves and manage water or head for the Hills.
Kirk Willison: [00:07:09] The Policy Cast podcast primarily focuses on housing policy. So let’s start with the conversation about that. You had mentioned that the issue of lack of affordable housing, it’s certainly shared by an awful lot of cities. And I saw that the average price of the home in Charleston is now over $300,000. And as you said, it’s increasing at a rate faster than almost any other place in the entire country. Rents too, though, are about as high as any other city in the Southeast. But I see that you’re leveraging a lot of different tools, Mr. Mayor, financial and otherwise, to try to address them. And I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about your broad strategy to address affordable housing.
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:07:56] Well, at the end of the day to provide affordable housing, somebody’s got to subsidize it. And so you need a lot of tools in the tool box and partners who are interested and come up with the resources and funding to make it happen. So, we’ve issued bonding concert by the city of Charleston to invest with our partners, including the Charleston Housing Authority, which is a housing authority that was set up back in the 1930s per federal guidelines. But we we’ve also partnered with lots of well-meaning, nonprofit and for-profit affordable housing developers. And we’ve been trying to leverage our funds by investing a million here, 2 million there, 3 million here in various affordable projects to help them move forward. In the meantime, we’ve changed our zoning for example, to allow people to increase density, even on home sites for accessory dwelling units. They weren’t allowed in the city before, so we were looking at all those possibilities. We have in South Carolina, we are not allowed by state law to do inclusionary zoning, so we’ve set up incentive-based zoning to allow developers to increase their density. In return, they either have to create a certain percentage of their units, 20% of their units for, that are affordable for 25-year period of time or pay a fee and leave it to the city and then we use those funds to invest in those projects I was telling you about. So thinking out of the box every step of the way, anyway we can make it easier for folks to build them, invest in them, ourselves, change our zoning laws, to increase density and right places.
Kirk Willison: [00:10:07] One of the things that struck me is how were you able to persuade voters to approve multimillion dollar bonds for affordable housing when the same type of efforts have failed elsewhere in the region?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:10:22] Well, I think we did a good marketing job, that was three years ago now. And we got all of our council members on board. I must say it’s the issue that really brings our city council together. Everybody on council gets it, and so we were able to, pretty united front and going to our citizens and asking for them their support, number one, number two, we had a plan. We knew what we were going to do with the funds. We had specific goals of number of units that were to be built. We had a track record set by my predecessor of creating affordable housing and really being a leader in the state. So, I think we built upon that record.
Kirk Willison: [00:11:14] You know, one of the year ongoing initiatives, maybe it’s the largest one is the construction of the 400 units of affordable housing near the old Cooper River Bridges and they’re going to replace homes that were primarily in black neighborhoods that were eliminated during the construction of the Ravenel Bridge. And I think it’s just an excellent example of how interconnected housing and racial equity can be. And I wonder, were you able to get everybody on board with that effort?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:11:44] Well, to tell you the truth, that’s taken a while. Everybody’s been on board. It’s been more multi-family replacement than single family, which was what was there historically. But, you know, we needed the density and this was a good place to start and there were so many challenges along the way. Literally the pilings from these two bridges were still, you know, underground. And so you had to maneuver amongst them and some other environmental issues and then some drainage issues as well. So nothing has been easy about that, but we opened a number of units last year and by the way, architecturally it’s, I mean, you can’t tell that gee, that’s an affordable product as opposed to a brand new for market development across the street. We really take the time to make it look excellent. So he didn’t want to share with you, in addition to the housing, we upgraded park facilities. We just put a, we had an outdoor pool. We invested to put a permanent cover over it. It looks beautiful, it’s open year-round. We partnered with South Carolina State University, a minority college here in South Carolina and they’ve opened through a federal program with the help of Congressman Cliburn community center that’s just getting ready to open up on the ground floor of one that we’re getting, going to break ground on next month. This is really exciting cause you can’t, it’s, it is in a AE zone. You can’t put a residents on the ground level, you have to build it up. You can either park underneath it, or you can do commercial space. We’re going to have a minority business incubator on the ground floor of this affordable housing development and have about eight or 9,000 square feet for minority businesses that are getting started. So this is, the thing you want, and then envision that though the, all along the street that fronts all of these properties, we had a drainage easement that we couldn’t build on so we’re making it a linear park. So you combine all these things together to enhance your quality of life, you add a park, you add some business development, a community center, a year-round swimming pool and it’s just, it’s a great place to live, you know, and it’s affordable at the same time. It’s a, it’s a vision for our city.
Kirk Willison: [00:14:34] Is affordable home ownership, particularly minority home ownership, also in your vision for affordable housing?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:14:42] Absolutely. And you know, that’s, that’s how we build wealth either through home ownership or business ownership. Now, most of the product I was just referring to will be rental, but nearby on the, nearby a neighborhood right around the corner, we broke ground just last week of four for single family, lots that we were buying when we build a single-family home, we do those for home ownership but with covenants to where if the owner sells a property, the next buyer will also be able to buy it at affordable price. Now one way we’ve recently started and I think about 30 or 40 other cities around the country are doing this, we follow their lead, is we created a nonprofit that is basically a community land trust, the land trust will own the dirt. The city or one of our nonprofit partners will build the home, we’ll sell it. So, the resident gets the benefit of the affordability, but they can make money when they sell the improvements. When they sell the house there, it can make money on that, but, don’t own the dirt. So that stays affordable and keeps the whole package more affordable over time. Like I said, you need as many tools in the toolbox as you can muster.
Kirk Willison: [00:16:12] You mentioned earlier on our discussion that the tragedy at Emanuel AME on June 17th, 2015, you Mr. Mayor have met the issue of race relations head on and your city. As mayor, you let a successful all be it, barely successful effort to persuade the city council to apologize for slavery. You last year, you led the local government’s efforts to relocate the statue of John C. Calhoun, who you acknowledged with South Carolina’s most noted statesmen, but also its most prominent defender of slavery and white supremacy. You know, these actions, they delivered national and international attention to Charleston. How did you appeal to your fellow citizens and elected officials to persuade them to follow your lead on those?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:17:04] Well, Kirk, thank you for asking. I do think at some point there are just some moral judgments about the right thing to do. And admittedly, there are points in your history, your life, where you have the opportunity to make these judgments and decisions. It was easy for me after the terrible murders at Mother Emanuel church to help lead an effort. And the community was so United and uplifted by the incredible response of the families of those who were killed. It was in love and forgiveness and unity. And so, to dig into our history and see the long-term impacts of disparities that have occurred here in Charleston and really throughout our society from slavery, from Jim Crow, the end of reconstruction, even to this day. It honestly, it wouldn’t have been a hard sell, but then I dug deeper into our own stories and it was so powerful, Kurt, that it just, it just blew my mind and I’ll just tell you very briefly about the city’s role in slavery. You wouldn’t imagine it was such an important part of the city’s budget prior to the civil war. When a slave, enslaved African was brought here, and more were brought to Charleston than any other city in North America, when they were sold, the city collected the commission on the sale. When you own the slave, and 75% of white citizens prior to the civil war owned slaves. So they paid a head tax on their ownership of slaves. And then we set up this kind of business licensing scheme, where if you own a slave who was a good carpenter and you wanted to rent him out to somebody to make some money off of his expertise and hard work. Then you had to register with the city and we issued a little metal tag with a number on it for each slave. And we collected a commission off of the rental also so a straight tax, a rental commission, sale commission, all added to the city budget but here’s the one that really just blew me away. If you own a slave in the city of Charleston and you wanted him, you wanted to punish him, you wanted him whipped. You didn’t have to do it yourself, you could turn him over to the city. We had by city ordinance, a menu of prices, so much for putting the chains on, so much for doing the whipping, so much for room and board. And then at the end of the punishment, we provide a bill to the owner. If he didn’t pay the bill, we just punish him some more and eventually if they didn’t get paid, it would happen that he would take ownership of the slave and then sell it. I mean, it was just the most unbelievable, and to have people step up and say, oh, you don’t have it anything to apologize for, that was 150 years ago. We didn’t have anything to do with that, it’s the same corporation, the city of Charleston that I am mayor of today that did these things, same corporation. So we apologize not only for that, but we committed to a more equitable and just city for our citizens. And it’s continued on even another quantum jump when last year’s murderer of George Floyd occurred.
Kirk Willison: [00:21:26] Mr. Mayor, did you learn anything about yourself in the process of this effort to try to move toward racial justice?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:21:39] Well, I feel like it’s a path that I’ve been on personally inspired by my parents and the life that I’ve been exposed to but every step along the way, it’s become a deeper commitment, more powerful, more meaningful. And I’ve seen, I’ve just gained perspective of the year. So yes, I’ve been deepened and learn from these experiences all along the way. When I was a young kid, Kurt, I’d say I was culturally deprived. My parents moved for a few years from Charleston up to Orangeburg. And so I happened to be living in Orangeburg in 1968. I was in the eighth grade when the Orangeburg massacre occurred and three African Americans were killed. Dozens were wounded, shot in the back as they were retreating from a line of highway patrolmen and national guardsmen, it was a horrific event. And then fast forward almost 50 years later, I’m running for mayor of my hometown. And we had the Emanuel nine, a massacre occurred here and, you know, I’ve thought all along my life about how nice it is, we’re making progress. You know, we have the civil rights act pass back in the sixties and voting rights, and I’ve always supported candidates that were progressive and all like that. And finally, I ran for office myself and this, it was like, an expectation that so much should have changed. And yet it still seemed so much the same that almost 50 years later, a witness to a racial massacre in your hometown. And it was so sad but powerful at the same time.
Kirk Willison: [00:23:57] Rounding out the issues that we kind of set out to discuss today is climate change and enormous implications for the future of Charleston, but also for affordable housing and racial equity. You’re no wallflower on this issue either Mr. Mayor, but you do want to build a wall. What’s your vision for the seawall and what’s its timeline?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:24:22] Well, as I mentioned, the sea is rising and then extreme weather is more frequent. I didn’t, promise it wasn’t me bring it bad luck, but since I got elected mayor, we’ve had four hurricanes and not all of them direct, but we’ve had impacts and on a few occasions, the water literally came over the existing, what we call our low battery seawall and other parts of the city. And if you look back at the history, you can understand it because about a third of the peninsula was all filled over our 350-year history. We don’t do those kinds of things so lightly anymore, you got to get the Corps of engineers’ approval to fill any wetlands, but for hundreds of years, you didn’t need no Corps of engineers’ approval and they were filling everywhere. It was amazing if you look at the difference in the maps, but, but anyway, we’re blessed to have engaged with the Corps of engineers, speaking to them on a study to best protect our city from a surge protection and whether there would be a federal benefit from that. And we believe there will be at the end of the study, which is due out this coming year which would take it to the next level of design and construction between a partnership with the city and the court. But that’s just one little slice of dealing with climate change and sea level rise in addition to that one initiative to provide a barrier protection. There are numerous other hard projects, but also there’s a matter of managing war of getting people to put rain gardens in to capture water, to manage it better. There’s also the issue of land use, where in the, I’ve just explained we had 350 years where people weren’t thinking much about water and where they built, they just fill in and build, right. So we’re, we’re updating our comprehensive plan and for the first time using water and Tide predictions and sea level rise predictions to guide our planning, our zoning, where we build things. And then on top of all that, the other strategy is to make our requirements for building and development, in terms of water management and drainage, as tough as anywhere in America. It needs to be in a special place like this, where we’re subject to sea level rise. And we put in a new storm water manual for development that is really thoughtful.
Kirk Willison: [00:27:15] That does bring up an interesting point though, because you have the climate changing and the limits as to what the peninsula can hold, but you have a need for more housing. And how do you balance the need for more housing with the requirements that, geez, if you’re not really careful, you know, flooding and surges will continue in the future?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:27:38] That’s right. So, a lot of it, you base it on the topography. And so part of our comprehensive plan was a very detailed analysis. I mean, doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but you know, we’ve got some areas of the city that get up to 12, 15 feet above sea level and where you’ve got even just a little bit of advantage on height and they often come like in ridges, like down the center spine of the peninsula, or even on John’s Island where Maybank highway is, West Ashley along Sam Rittenberg. You’ve got some Carters that have a little more height than the rest of it. So that’s where you zone it to put your maximum density in. And then on your lower, very lowest levels, you either ban future development or make sure that it’s done in such a way and it such elevations that you’re protecting your citizens. So being thoughtful about where density goes and also planning that along with where the drainage projects that we’re engaged in and have planned for will make a difference in terms of future flooding.
Kirk Willison: [00:28:54] You know, one step the federal government is considering is raising the cost of flood insurance. As I understand it, new flood insurance premiums could mean that about 40% of the flood prone homes in Charleston could actually have rates go up to $18,000 a year in flood insurance premiums compared to about $2,300 today. Now it’s not going to happen overnight, it’s going to be something that’s going to take some time to be done, but I guess it could work in one regard as it might discourage further development along the flood prone areas. But at the same time, it could mean only the affluent are going to be able to live in certain neighborhoods. And do you see this being good, bad, indifferent?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:29:43] Well, it’s funny, you mentioned that, my dad was such an insightful and funny guy and he had a couple of pet peeves along the way and particularly after you’d have a beverage or two, he would always go back to a couple of his pet peeves. And would you believe that, I mean, I kind of grew up hearing my dad like fuss about the federal flood insurance program. You know, sounds weird, but it’s true and I mean his whole pet peeve was that it facilitated wealthier folks to build in places that made no sense, where they shouldn’t be building and you know, that’s exactly what happened. So, we’ve got a lot of those structures there now. You know, I do think it’s reasonable that increases, even though they’re warranted, there’d be some governor on it, some limiting factor over time so that it just doesn’t, you know, blow people away. At the same time, if you look at what I just talked about, our zoning efforts and plans for the future, what we’re trying to do is avoid that overbuilding in the wrong places, okay. So, maybe if everybody had been more thoughtful centuries ago, you know, we wouldn’t be in this boat, no pun intended.
Kirk Willison: [00:31:17] Mr. Mayor, One last question. 20 years from now, when people are looking back at Mayor Tecklenberg’s tenure in an office, what would you like them to recall it as your greatest achievement?
Charleston’s Mayor: [00:31:31] He was a pretty damn good plumber. That’s our existential threat, at the same time to take a city with such a history of racism to a better place in terms of equity would be a market accomplishment, not just, not for me, John Tecklenburg, but for our citizens and for our city. And I think we’re positioned to be able to do that and show leadership there. And I think it’s a calling, frankly, for our city to be that kind of light on the hill, if you will, to try to set an example of, given where we’ve come from to take a positive direction, a progressive direction from the future.
Kirk Willison: [00:32:35] Thank you very much for the time today. It’s been a terrific interview. I appreciate it, thanks.
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PolicyCast — a video podcast series hosted by Kirk Willison — enables mortgage professionals to keep on top of the issues shaping the future of housing and the new policy initiatives under consideration in Washington, D.C., the state capitals and the financial markets.
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As VP of Government and Industry Relations for Arch MI and a mortgage finance expert with more than 25 years in government relations, Kirk speaks candidly with an array of the most influential industry and policy thought leaders in the nation.
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