Senior housing complex honors legacy of Johns Island civil rights leader Esau Jenkins

JOHNS ISLAND — More than 60 years ago, Esau Jenkins built a home for his wife and 13 children on River Road using a new durable material he found in Mississippi.

The late civil rights leader wanted to test the quality of the “brick crete” before using it to build safe, affordable houses in his community, Jenkins’ youngest daughter told a group gathered not far from that home, which still stands today.

Elaine Jenkins said her father died before seeing that project realized, though he’s remembered for other successful endeavors, including the founding of the Progressive Club — a co-op grocery and dry goods store for rural Black folk — and a Citizenship School where he and others taught adults and children how to read and write, and how to exercise their voting rights. She thanked those who carried on with her father’s vision for quality housing.

On Feb. 15, Elaine Jenkins joined public and private partners at a groundbreaking for a 72-unit affordable housing complex for seniors named the Esau Jenkins Village, located near the intersection of Maybank Highway and Bohicket Road.

“Thank you taking note that our parents’ ministry made a difference in the lives of people here on the sea islands,” Jenkins told the crowd, which included many of her family members.

Last month, Nix Development announced that the company and its two partners, the nonprofit Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corporation and Ward Mungo Construction LLC, had finalized nearly $26 million in financing needed for the project. Financial backers include Citibank, PNC Bank and several public agencies, such as the state of South Carolina, the city of Charleston and Charleston County.

“This is a true, true casebook example of public-private partnership as its best,” said Deborah McKetty, president of the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, the administrator of project funds derived from money Charleston County received as a result of the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The 61 one-bedroom apartments and 11 two-bedroom apartments are meant for seniors who make up to 60 percent of the area’s annual median income. Amenities will include a community room, fitness center, computer station, walking trail and outdoor gathering space.

The rental units are expected to be ready for residents 62 and older by spring 2025.

Charleston Mayor William Cogswell said that he didn’t have a lot to do with this project — he just took office last month — but he hopes to see more like it.

“Because they protect the character, the culture and, most importantly, the community that everybody loves about Charleston,” Cogswell said. 

Many of those who might soon live in these apartments likely grew up here, have deep ties to the community and might not be able to afford to remain in the Charleston area without subsidized housing, he added. 

“They are the reason why we are what we are,” he said. “And it is incumbent on us as leaders of the community to respect that, to acknowledge that and to protect that.”

The Johns Island development has been in the works for six years. It ran into a funding crunch in late 2021 after the state reformed its low-income housing tax-credit system, placing limits on the program and nearly jeopardizing the project.

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