The views expressed are not the views of the SC Community Loan Fund and are part of an ongoing series of guest blogs connecting housing to broader community issues such as business development, economic development, conservation, and transportation.

It’s well documented that housing affordability issues exist across our three-county region, in all areas, and the average home cost is not simply higher due to coastal location and resort real estate costs (see the 2012 Regional Economic Scorecard). Two key elements of the housing affordability equation are the cost of the home itself and the average wage levels in a community.  And our region’s housing affordability is further intensified by the fact that average wages are roughly 10% below the national average.

The Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA), a public-private not-for-profit that serves as a catalyst for long-term, sustainable economic growth in the Charleston region, is focused on driving higher wages in order to address one side of that affordability equation.  Our region’s comprehensive and cluster-based economic development strategy,Opportunity Next, calls on regional stakeholders to align economic development, workforce and education, and community development activities around four industry cluster targets (aerospace, advanced security & IT, biomedical, and energy systems) plus five core competencies that are critical to overall economic growth. These targets and competencies work together to supercharge the region’s economy, improve average wages, and create new, high-skill, high wage jobs over the next 3-5 years.

Two years in, the strategy is working. Earnings per worker in the Charleston region have grown almost 22% since 2005, to more than $46,700/year on average.  This growth rate is higher than that of the U.S., economic powerhouses like Austin and Raleigh, and the majority of Charleston’s peer metros (as noted in the Regional Economic Scorecard).

Our regional economy has made great strides – but with average per capita income still at only 91% of the U.S. average, we must collectively do more.

Why the sense of urgency?  Because talent – highly-skilled, highly-educated, and highly-mobile young workers – are the lifeblood of the knowledge economy, and are critical for the jobs in advanced manufacturing, aerospace, biomedical, and computer software and IT that we’re working diligently to create in this region.  In fact, a recent global survey of companies conducted by Maxis Global Benefits Network stated that “A global talent shortage worries multinational companies more than revolution or recession.”

Studies show what matters most to young workers is quality of place. In fact, unlike the boomer generation, many of them choose where to live first, and how they’ll make a living second.

How does our region measure up?  A recent benchmarking study conducted by Next Generation Consulting, the Charleston Talent Handprint,  commissioned by the Charleston Metro Chamber and  funded in part by CRDA, compares Charleston to five peer southeastern metro on seven quality of life indexes.  While Charleston ranks 3rd overall, and scores #1 on the After Hours index (for festivals, restaurants, music shows, and brewpubs), we come in dead last for Cost of Lifestyle – with higher income and sales tax than the peer metros and the national average, and more expensive overall in terms of home ownership, rent, food/groceries, and utilities.

The good news? Right now, we’re hot, with the Charleston region in the international spotlight on multiple fronts. We’ve been named the best U.S. destination two years in a row by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler and were ranked World’s Best City by the same publication in 2012. This week Travel + Leisure readers ranked Charleston as the Best City in the U.S. and Canada, and #7 on its World’s Best Cities list, and Under 30 CEO magazine ranked Charleston as the #3 Best City for young entrepreneurs.

Due to our high-quality lifestyle attributes and strong economic growth, we’re having some success in attracting talent. Based on census data, the Wall Street Journal recognized Charleston as the #1 U.S. metro for Brain Gain, or growth in the percentage of adults with college degrees in the last decade.  The region’s population grew twice as fast as the U.S. since 2000, and three times as fast since 2011, with over 70% of that growth due to in-migration.

The downside?  If we don’t successfully address the issues that affect our quality of place and attractiveness to young talent – developing a truly multi-modal transportation system, improving K-12 education, and addressing housing affordability, in particular – we will not be able to sustain our current economic success over time in a meaningful way. To maximize our region’s economic potential and compete internationally, we must all work together as a unified region to tackle these issues and secure a better economic future today.

Stephen C. Warner
VP Global Marketing/Regional Competitiveness
Charleston Regional Development Alliance