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Agency's focus shifts from housing

Rising land and construction costs have forced Five Rivers Community Development Corp. to shift its focus from building affordable homes to teaching classes about buying a home or starting a new business.

Beulah White, the nonprofit agency's executive director, said Five Rivers cannot afford to buy land and build houses in Georgetown County that cost buyers less than $100,000.

As the agency's emphasis has shifted to classroom programs, Five Rivers' clients are receiving more advice and training but less financial assistance.

Five Rivers' purpose, according to the agency's bylaws, is to provide quality, affordable housing and enhance economic growth for Georgetown County's low- to moderate-income residents.

That population includes households with incomes of up to 80 percent of the county's median household income of $36,458 per year, according to the U.S. Census.

There are 23,567 people in that income group, according to census figures. That includes 8,806 people who fall below the federal poverty threshold with annual incomes of $9,393 or less in 2003.

Five Rivers has provided financial assistance to about 400 people, or 1.7 percent of the population it serves, according to a review of the agency's financial statements, federal tax returns, literature and interviews with White and Dayo Smith, the agency's chief financial officer.

That review shows participants in Five Rivers' programs have received $310,564 in direct financial assistance since the agency was founded on Sept. 1, 1995. That is 9.4 percent of the nearly $3.3 million the agency spent between 1996 and 2004, the latest year for which data is available.

Nearly half of Five Rivers' money during those years went toward salaries, employee benefits and travel for White, Smith and other agency staff.

Two-thirds of the agency's financial assistance to clients - $205,000 - was given to eight people who bought homes in the Poplar Place neighborhood that Five Rivers built in Pawleys Island.

Five Rivers spent years getting the land and funding to build Poplar Place, which includes eight three-bedroom homes on Annie Rainey Lane that cost $75,000 apiece. The neighborhood was completed in 2001.

Each of the people who bought homes in Poplar Place received between $24,250 and $25,000 in subsidy funding and $1,000 for closing costs.

Since Poplar Place was completed, Five Rivers has focused on classroom programs such as its "Diamonds in the Rough" entrepreneur training and a home-buying class called "I Want My House."

Diamonds in the Rough and a state-funded Individual Development Account program have provided $97,036 of the $105,564 in remaining financial assistance Five Rivers has provided to clients, according to the agency's financial statements.

The rest of the assistance, according to financial statements and the agency's tax returns, has been grants to specific individuals or businesses. Included in that amount is a $20 grant the agency's board of directors approved for Smith in 2002 for a wedding gift.

Five Rivers got approval this summer for a federal loan program that could give financial help to the agency's Diamonds in the Rough participants, although those clients would have to repay the money they get.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture program provides a $50,000 pool of money from which low-interest loans of between $500 and $15,000 can be made.

Smith said 10 percent of that grant, or $5,000, will be used for administrative costs, such as salaries. The remaining $45,000 will go to individuals.

Five Rivers also has long-range plans to build houses on four empty lots it owns in the Lincolnshire subdivision of Georgetown County.

First Federal bank in Charleston donated the land to Five Rivers, but a lack of water and sewer service to the property has hindered development.

"We're hoping to keep [the homes] in the $75,000 to $85,000 price range, but we haven't priced anything out, and it's so hard to find builders who are interested in doing affordable housing," White said.

Five Rivers says its programs are creating jobs and economic benefit to Georgetown County.

Five Rivers says its Diamonds in the Rough participants have started 68 businesses since the program was created in 1998.

A December 2004 study by Coastal Carolina University professor Tom Secrest said those businesses contribute $1.25 million to Georgetown County's economy each year. That amount includes wages paid by the businesses, rent those businesses pay for retail and office space, interest income and other sources.

The study, which Secrest said he did for free, says another nearly $1 million in annual economic benefit is created by secondary factors, such as business-to-business and household spending by Diamonds in the Rough entrepreneurs.

Just as important as the financial assistance Five Rivers has given is the ongoing technical assistance, training and advice White and Smith give to clients who are trying to start a business or buy a home, said Sam Livingston, president of the agency's board of directors.

"They present themselves as a continuous resource, not just for that moment in time," Livingston said. "Their interest is not just getting money for programs, but working those programs from start to finish and then following through with people to help them become successful."