HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (WSAV) — The near eviction of more than 300 residents from Chimney Cove on Hilton Head sparked a renewed debate over affordable housing on the Island.

Tuesday, the Town Council addressed the issue to a crowded room of citizens.

The backbone of the island. The workforce takes on jobs for restaurants, landscapers hotels, cleaning crews, and more.

When it comes to living on the Island for a price they can afford, most folks say they don’t feel welcome.

“When you say affordable and low income it doesn’t mean it’s someone who is practically homeless. It’s the teachers, it’s the service people, it’s everyone around you that is not in an upper echelon environment,” explains Cooper Mooney.

Mooney stood up and spoke for the hundreds of people who couldn’t Tuesday. Why? They were working at the jobs that help them pay the ever-increasing rents on the Island.

Mooney is in law school and working full-time. Paying $1,400 a month rent for an unfinished one-bedroom apartment. Rent that is raising another $100 next month they say.

More than 50 people packed the chambers on this day to listen to what the council had to say about the affordable housing crisis and to speak out for themselves.

“Everyone has a vested interest in how this turns out because it’s Chimney Cove now, but people are in fear, they are wondering am I next,” said Rev. Louis Johnson, the Pastor at Central Oak Grove Baptist Church.

The specially called meeting stemmed from the eviction notices more than 300 people, mostly Hispanic, all lower-income working residents, received last month at Chimney Cove Village off Highway 278. Many of the residents, including the 78 school-age students enrolled at Beaufort County Schools, were given barely a month’s notice to find a place to live.

“A 30-day notice to residents is not enough in our community plain and simple,” Town Manager Marc Orlando said, to a round of applause.

At $1,500 a month they were paying, there was no place for most of those folks to go.

While those eviction notices have since been rescinded, all those folks still have no idea how long they may be able to stay on the island. Most of them work on Hilton Head, joining forces for child care and even transportation in some cases. Without being close to work, they may have to quit and find another job.

The Town Council sat and listened not just to the people affected and the agencies like Deep Well and Christ Lutheran Church who have been helping them, but to local business owners like Sally Zuniga.

Zuniga and her husband Linden own Tio’s Latin American Kitchen. They support the Town’s call for businesses to step up and build housing for their employees. But say while some owners have that capability and money, not everyone is in such a good situation.

“Some businesses can afford to build their housing. I applaud them,” Sally said. “But many of us small business owners can’t afford to invest in housing at this time with the current market rates but our small businesses and our employees are still valuable, and essential to the fabric of this Island.”

Town manager Marc Orlando admitted the short-term rental boom on the island has led to less long-term rental availability. And the ones that are left are pricing many people out of the market.

He and other council members touted the success of public-private partnerships, like the one currently under bid on Hilton Head’s North end, as a possible solution.

But even that solution doesn’t account for a lack of property that the town can use for housing. Because much of the land was bought by Hilton Head using money from referendums, it is earmarked only for green space, not development.

Assistant Town Manager Shawn Colin gave the crowd and council an update on the steps the town has been using to help with housing needs.

In 2020, the council approved developer incentives to get them to turn unused or underutilized commercial spaces into housing. Just last year, they set down rules to modify town codes to allow higher-density housing, only under certain conditions.

But Colin admitted it’s a major issue, saying he has even had to commute to the Island for his entire 16-year tenure.

Councilman Glenn Stanford says something needs to be done and says buying land for the next public-private partnership development should be a priority.

Relieving or lessening impact fees Stanford said could also be a way to help.

The harshest and most pointed comments came from Councilman Alex Brown.

“Quite frankly I am sick of words on paper. It’s time for us to take some action,” Brown said to a round of applause from the gathered crowd.

Brown pointed some of the blame right back at his fellow council members.

“I asked this council to look at buying Rollers Trailer Park so that this threat would not come before us again. That never made its way to an agenda,” said Brown. “We talked quietly about acquiring Chimney Cove. That has never made its way to an agenda. Yet in executive sessions we find ourselves talking about other properties that are not available. We are looking for leadership and courage to come out of this meeting.”

“I appreciate Mr. Colin giving us a report of all the things we are doing,” Brown continued. “Obviously it’s not enough because if was we wouldn’t have a roomful of people standing before us this morning.”

Councilman Tom Harkins said anything that is done should be done soon. While Chimney Cove residents don’t have eviction notices in hand now, there is no timetable on how long this reprieve will last, or when a buyer may come along to purchase the property and potentially move them out again.

Orlando called for a “contingency plan” to be put in place by the Town to help residents feel more secure.

One of the ideas would be to utilize the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program which helps lower-income residents and the disabled with affordable housing choices.

Mayor John McCann was the last to speak, offering his idea, the millage rate. An annual property tax could go directly toward buying of property and helping with housing issues on the Island. Orlando said that could raise $1 to $3 million a year for a Town Housing Board to be created.

The Mayor believes anything that should be done needs a referendum, so it is not just the council, but the people who have the final decision.

The council will discuss these ideas and more at their strategic planning meeting on Thursday.