She was giving up.
Zelda Benjamin had lived through a decade of instability, illness, family separation and periodic homelessness. After working long hours, she’d come home to a house that wasn’t her own, longing for the independence and confidence she’d had when she had a safe house that was her home.
A month ago, she and her son were given that – and a new start. “To me, it’s like I’m starting to dream again, and I’m seeing dreams come true,” the 42-year-old said.
To me, it’s like I’m starting to dream again, and I’m seeing dreams come true.
Zelda Benjamin, 42
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Benjamin’s new rental home, recently refurbished and situated in a safe neighborhood near downtown, is a product of the efforts of a developer committed to providing affordable housing and an organization committed to making those ventures financially possible. And it doesn’t break her budget.
A collaboration between Affordable Housing Resources and the Midlands Housing Trust Fund put Benjamin and her 13-year-old son, Daniel, in a rental house costing them no more than 30 percent of Benjamin’s income.
Affordable Housing Resources refurbishes and repairs houses for low-income families and charges them no more than one-third of their income for rent. The Midlands Housing Trust Fund, which receives both public and private funding, makes that mission possible by providing loans to developers to create affordable housing for families earning less than 80 percent of the median area income.
The need here is great. About half of all Columbia-area renters could be considered housing cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than one-third of their household income for rent and utilities, according to U.S. Census estimates.
41 percent Households in S.C. that earn 80 percent or less of the state’s $44,300 median household income
95,000 Families in Richland and Lexington counties that earn 80 percent or less of the state’s median income, qualifying for affordable housing
More than 50 percent Columbia-area renters who are housing cost-burdened because they pay more than one-third of their income for rent and utilities
“When you’re paying 40, 50, sometimes 55 percent of your income on housing costs, you’re going to be forced to make some really tough choices,” said Brian Huskey, director of the Midlands Housing Trust Fund. “And a lot of times, one bad choice and you’re out on the streets.”
In the past four years, the Midlands Housing Trust Fund has helped keep dozens of families from the streets of the seven-county Midlands area by financing $7.6 million for the construction or rehabilitation of 24 multi-family units and 17 single-family homes, four of which are now occupied by first-time homeowners.
A recent economic impact study by the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business found that the trust fund has a $4.8 million annual impact on the Midlands, reflecting the dollar value of all final goods and services produced in the Midlands region that can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to all new construction and rehabilitation projects funded through the trust fund.
But the impact of the Midlands Housing Trust Fund and the numerous other Midlands affordable housing proponents is primarily personal.
“It’s kind of a social-justice issue,” Huskey said. “I think people need to have a safe and decent place to live that’s within their means in order to ever get a toehold in today’s economy and be able to advance in their life.”
I think people need to have a safe and decent place to live that’s within their means in order to ever get a toehold in today’s economy and be able to advance in their life.
Brian Huskey, director of the Midlands Housing Trust Fund
Benjamin has been trying for years to get that toehold.
She first moved to Columbia from Sumter 10 years ago, seeking an escape from a bad marriage and a new start. She was working at a Columbia hospital as a nursing assistant and, with limited working hours, not earning enough to afford a decent place on her own.
“It is embarrassing, and it’s disappointing, because I felt like I let my family down,” she said. “It’s condemning. ... People were saying, ‘You’re going to be all right.’ But at the time I didn’t feel like I was.”
She and her two sons, Kendal and Daniel, then 7 and 3, lived with family members for a while before moving to Columbia’s Family Shelter, where they lived for 18 months.
“Things were looking good,” she said.
Things started looking even better when she was given her first chance at her own home through Affordable Housing Resources.
She and her two sons moved into a two-bedroom house in the Rosewood neighborhood where she paid just $350 a month for rent, plus the cost of utilities.
“It felt good. I felt accomplished,” she said. “Right after that, I went on and applied for Midlands Tech and was able to get in. I just felt like I could do anything after that.”
“Housing ... sets the stage for everything else,” said Mike Chesser, loan origination director for the Midlands Housing Trust Fund, who has worked closely with Benjamin over the years.
The Benjamins lived comfortably in the Rosewood home, though not without some hardships, for four years before Benjamin began struggling with mental illness. They moved back to Sumter in September 2011, seeking support from her family.
The next three and a half years for Benjamin saw more moves between Columbia and Sumter, stays in St. Lawrence Place, Transitions homeless shelter and her parents’ house, splitting up her family in an ongoing struggle to get back on – and stay on – a path to independence.
A month ago, Benjamin and her younger son, Daniel, made one more move from Sumter to Columbia, this time into a house they call their own.
Having just been offered a new job as a certified nursing assistant at a prison hospital, Benjamin already is looking into more schooling and a part-time job. She pays about $150 less per month for her rent and utilities than she would for market-rate housing.
Her relationship with Daniel has improved. Her morale is up. She’s finally feeling stable. She’s dreaming of possibly even owning a home one day.
I just feel like I can do everything.
“I just feel like I can do everything,” Benjamin said. “Proverbs says hope deferred makes the heart sick. And when a dream comes true, it’s like a tree of life. So, I’m at that tree of life.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
Affordable housing needs in the Midlands
41 percent: Households in S.C. that earn 80 percent or less of the state’s $44,300 median household income
95,000: Families in Richland and Lexington counties that earn 80 percent or less of of the state’s median income, qualifying for affordable housing
More than 50 percent: Columbia-area renters who are housing cost-burdened because they pay more than one-third of their income for rent and utilities
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau and University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business