Rising housing costs in Myrtle Beach are forcing workers to commute longer distances because they can't afford to live in the city, according to a recent report.
Experts insist the city's housing crisis will worsen as property values increase.
“We definitely have a problem with hotel workers and service workers living far away,” said Julinna Oxley, co-founder of the social justice non-profit Grand Strand Action Together. “The wages in Horry County have not gone up while rent prices have skyrocketed.”
A report from the city and Habitat for Humanity of Horry County noted that 56% of renters within city limits are cost-burdened or severely cost-burdened.
“We consider a burden when a household spends more than 30% of its income on housing and a severe burden when it spends more than 50%,” explained Habitat for Humanity Director of Workforce Housing Chad Charles.
This means that city housing is unaffordable for most of its workers, as over half of jobs within city limits are in accommodations, food or retail, which typically pay less than $30,000 annually.
“A single worker in the accommodation and food services, retail trade or arts, entertainment and recreation sectors earn an income that could allow them to pay no more than $600 per month in rent,” the report read. “However, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Myrtle Beach is about $900.”
Charles said rent has likely increased even further since the study period. “We don’t have 2020 data yet,” he said, “but it likely jumped at least that much again last year.”
The influx of wealthy homeowners who have moved to surrounding Horry County over the past decade helped drive up costs.
From 2011 to 2019, there was a 112% increase in households making at least $150,000 annually. The report cited the attendant rise in property values as a challenge for workplace housing within the city, explaining, “Higher income households can put upward pressure on prices and rent, placing housing further out of reach for those with more modest incomes.”
High costs of living have driven many of the service workers who power the hospitality sector outside of city and even county limits.
The report found that those who work in Myrtle Beach travel longer distances than commuters in Horry County and Conway, with one in five commuting at least 50 miles each way and less than 15% living in the city.
Keeping workforce housing affordable will be challenging in the coming years.
Horry County is in the midst of a population boom driven by wealthier retirees from outside the area, adding around 70,000 people since 2011. According to Charles, the surge in homeownership took off in 2017, after the housing market rebounded from the financial crisis of 2008.
The housing market in Horry County will likely redound to property values in the city, where 65% of homes already run for at least $400,000.
Stephanie Southworth, a Coastal Carolina University professor of sociology who has studied local homelessness, said the county housing boom would likely affect rent as well.
“Right now housing is soaring and that trickles down to people that are renting,” Southworth said.
The city is also undertaking several revitalization efforts.
The city is working with One Grand Strand — a consortium of entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders and public officials — to attract more business downtown through public-private partnerships and other incentives.
Asked about the impact on costs of living, Downtown Development Director Lauren Clever said, “Naturally when you add positive things to an area that has been vacant for decades you’re going to start to see the value of things increase,” but added that “you also have the in-between folks, families, young professionals that we want to appeal to.”
One Grand Strand CEO Michael Clayton said he was “working incredibly hard on the gentrification issue,” adding that “we are dedicated to ensuring the end product is equitable and inclusive as well as commercially successful.”
The city will focus many of its efforts on the arts and innovation district downtown.
“Thriving cities have green spaces, businesses that attract all ages, and educational programs downtown,” said Mayor Brenda Bethune. “We want to reactivate an area that has been underutilized and desolate for decades.”
“We’re partnering with CCU on the theater on Main Street. It is a way to bring culture and students to the arts and innovation district,” she continued, adding that the theater will put on productions and have classrooms for students. “We also created a technical advisory group (TAG). We have been working with them to design a co-working space on 9th avenue in partnership with Horry Telephone Cooperative.”
Asked about the impact on workforce housing, Bethune said, “We’re talking about a very small part of downtown so it shouldn’t affect areas where people are renting.”
In response to a follow-up about the potential for development to raise the property values of surrounding areas, Bethune said, “We’re trying to create more workforce housing.”
“With our hospitality industry, a lot of our workers can’t live where they work,” she continued. “We’re trying to figure out how do we create more workforce housing so those who work here can live here.”
Amber Campbell-Moore, an analyst with the city Workforce Housing Department, said the city was working with the issue in mind.
“Gentrification is definitely something that we’re cognizant of,” Campbell-Moore said. “We definitely will be taking different initiatives to maintain affordability with projects and ensure we’re not pricing existing residents out.”
Activists remain cautiously optimistic.
“It’s great that revitalization is helping downtown, but if you don’t include affordable housing in that plan you’ll have more problems,” Southworth said.
“I’m 100% behind revitalizing downtown,” said Oxley, adding that wages should be included in the discussion. “A rising tide lifts all boats to some extent but it’s not going to help the people whose wages are stagnant.”
Campbell-Moore cautioned against identifying a single cause for rising costs of living.
“There isn’t a direct causality,” she said. “There are a number of factors.”
She said that the next step for Habitat for Humanity and the city will be to examine best practices in comparable cities along the eastern coastline.
“Every quarter we give an update to our city council,” she said. “We hope to have all of our assessments done by the end of the year and to have a strategy for implementation in January 2022.”
Charles, with Habitat for Humanity, said that he will bring “zoning and planning professionals into the mix” when devising recommendations. Campbell-Moore said that she will consult with the Myrtle Beach Housing Authority, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and the Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors.
“Nothing is an overnight fix and we are doing our best to make sure that we’re going to have a proper product for this area,” she said. “Every community is unique, so we want to make sure we have the proper tools in place.”