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Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots
January 2016
Tracy and Bob Doran infuse “community” back into community development—and have this thing for oysters

Oysters and affordable housing—not exactly subjects that naturally go together, but the two have more in common than you might think. To wit: both are hot topics, in high demand locally, and incredibly hard to crack, especially the increasingly dire need for affordable housing in the Charleston region. One other fortunate common denominator is that both have the Doran family behind them. That’s why you may see delivery trucks for St. Jude Farms, an ACE Basin-based sustainable oyster farming, seafood, and aquaculture operation that the Dorans launched in 2012, making pit stops at GrandOaks Apartments, a low-income housing complex for seniors in West Ashley that’s one of several local developments by the Dorans’ Humanities Foundation.

“We all wear many hats around here,” explains Tracy Doran, president of the Humanities Foundation and chief wearer-of-many-hats (over her many indomitable curls). “After realizing that a significant number of our residents had food insecurity, we started a food pantry but needed delivery help. Our St. Jude Farms trucks were already out delivering fresh seafood in that area, so why not piggyback?” It’s a perfect example of what the Dorans do best: connecting the dots.

Housing With a Heart
See a need; look for available resources to meet it; connect the dots. This simple formula has helped Tracy, her husband Bob, and their staff grow the Humanities Foundation into a thriving nonprofit developer of low-income housing across the Southeast. Now in its 23rd year, the Humanities Foundation creates “housing from the heart” (as their 20th anniversary motto says), which translates into more than building affordable apartments. It means creating attractive, accessible housing communities with an array of resident services, such as food pantries, community gardens, health monitoring for seniors, and after-school mentoring programs for kids. “Humanities Foundation developments go beyond the apartment walls,” Tracy says.

All told, the Humanities Foundation has developed 1,553 units of affordable housing for moderate- to low-income residents in South Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, and Georgia—with the majority of projects located in the Charleston area, where the Dorans have deep family roots. A fifth-generation Charleston businessman, Bob grew up here and now heads the James Doran Company (JDC), formerly a shipping enterprise founded by his great-grandfather in 1882, today diversified into a real estate investment, development, and management firm headquartered in Mount Pleasant. Tracy, who hails from a dairy farm that her family has operated for more than a century outside of Greenville, met Bob after moving to Charleston in 1980 to complete her nursing studies at MUSC.

The two married in Nantucket and lived there for a year, before moving to Atlanta for two years (during which Tracy got her real estate license) and coming back to Charleston for good in 1988. While Tracy pursued a nursing career with stints in the MUSC Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, at Roper Hospital, and at Hospice of Charleston, she also worked with Bob on his real estate endeavors. “I helped in packaging the deals, coordinating all the various pieces and parts. I’m a collaborator; that’s my skill set,” says Tracy. Soon daughters Annie and Rosie came along (now ages 26 and 24), then son Patrick, now 21, and the Dorans’ hands were full.

Still it wasn’t enough for the community-minded couple. After moving back to Charleston, they wanted to find a way to give back, so Bob, Tracy, and Bob’s mother went to see Floy Work, the then-director of Crisis Ministries (now One80 Place). “Homelessness and poverty were issues we felt strongly about,” says Tracy. “When we asked Floy what we could do, she said, ‘We need money, and we need housing,’ and sent us to see Linda Ketner.” It was the early 1990s, and Ketner was chairing the Mayor’s Council on Homelessness and Housing, which was trying to figure out how to establish single-room occupancy (SRO) transitional housing to reduce the exploding demand for shelter beds. At the time, nearly half of Crisis Ministries residents had jobs, some of them full-time, but they still couldn’t afford an apartment.

“The Mayor’s Council studied the issue, wrote a bill, and got the Housing Trust Fund Bill passed in the state legislature to generate funds for matching federal dollars in order to build affordable housing in South Carolina,” recalls Ketner. But they lacked a developer to guide them through putting together an actual deal. “And then this bright, energetic young woman named Tracy Doran walks into Council chambers, offering her family’s real estate expertise to do just that.”  

Tracy and Bob donated their time to establish the first SRO development in Charleston. They found a site on King Street, pulled together financing, hired an architect and contractor, and oversaw completion of that first development. In the process, they began to see the need for a nonprofit entity well versed in both finance and development to manage the complex process. “This type of housing is funded through an IRS tax credit program that takes private equity and puts it into public purpose,” says Tracy. So in 1992, she and Bob created the Humanities Foundation to fill that need.

Not Just a Building
“Within just a few years, with Tracy and the Humanities Foundation, as well as the City Housing Authority and multiple sources of private and public funding, we had created more than 800 affordable housing units all over the peninsula,” notes Ketner, who soon handed over the reins of what evolved into the Mayor’s Council on Homelessness and Affordable Housing to Tracy.

Today, half of the Humanities Foundation’s 18 completed housing developments for low- to moderate-income families and seniors are in the Lowcountry, with standouts including Seven Farms Apartments and Village as a centerpiece on Daniel Island. Like Seven Farms, every Humanities Foundation development is high-quality and attractive—if you didn’t know that their residents qualified to live there by earning less than 60 percent of the area’s average median income (AMI, which for Charleston equates to $26,000), you wouldn’t otherwise guess it. “I love going by the Seven Farms community because it just looks so nice,” says former Charleston mayor Joe Riley. “The folks at the Humanities Foundation go to substantial expense to hire skilled designers and use good materials.”  

But the Dorans—including Bob’s son Shane from his first marriage, who works with JDC (son Clayton lives in Florida and doesn’t work with the company)—care about more than aesthetics. Their goal is to create housing that the broader community can be proud of and communities where residents feel secure, supported, and empowered. This is both good business strategy (JDC manages most of the properties) and a reflection of the Dorans’ generosity and compassion. As Tracy explains, addressing people’s needs by optimizing available resources is simply the right thing to do, and the bonus is that happy residents who are involved in their resident association tend to pay their rent on time, which reduces turnover and ultimately makes the properties more successful.

“They are meticulous about looking at every single detail as it relates to the end product, the building, and the person who will subsequently occupy it,” says Valarie Williams, executive director of the State Housing Finance and Development Authority. “For Tracy and her team, it’s not just about building apartments, but a holistic process to build community.”

In addition to food pantries and community gardens, the array of resident services offered is constantly expanding, depending on what needs are identified and what organizations they find to partner with. “It’s all about layering. Layering services, partners, and funding,” says Tracy, whose program staff regularly seeks grant opportunities.

For example, a grant from Sustaining our Seniors Foundation (founded by then-Lt. Governor Glenn McConnell) funded a survey of residents in all Humanities Foundation apartments for seniors in the Charleston area to explore barriers keeping them from successfully aging-in-place. The survey, done in partnership with the MUSC School of Nursing, found that getting to the doctor’s office was a primary obstacle. As a result, Humanities Foundation in partnership with MUSC is now implementing a pilot Telehealth program at Grandview Apartments to monitor residents’ health and help them better manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. “This is really exciting for me—I get to bring my nursing side back into play,” says Tracy. A similar program is underway in conjunction with MUSC and Armstrong State University School of Nursing in Georgia at the Humanities Foundation’s senior residential community, Ashleigh Place in Richmond Hill, Georgia (see sidebar).

“Our residents live on margins. Their situations can be precarious, and one setback can be devastating,” says Tracy. To help prevent people from losing housing due to unforeseen crises, the Humanities Foundation created ShelterNet, which provides one-time emergency financial assistance to help Lowcountry residents keep the lights or water on or pay rent or mortgage. “It might take just $150 to help someone pay a bill and keep their home,” she notes, “but it costs about $1,800 in related fees to help them move back into housing once they lose it.” To date, more than 25,000 people in the region have received help through ShelterNet.

The Family Farm
Working under the radar to expand housing for low-income residents has been the Dorans’ passion for 23 years. But it’s far from their only interest. “I’m a numbers guy. I like creating things and seeing how the numbers work,” says Bob, the consummate businessman. After weathering the recession, he decided diving back into real estate 100 percent wasn’t where he wanted to put all his energy. “I wanted a new challenge—something totally different and not as cyclical as real estate.” And so, why not oysters?

St. Jude Farms (named for Bob’s patron saint) is the Doran family’s sustainable aquaculture farm located on Bennetts Point in the heart of the ACE Basin, near where the Dorans vacation on Edisto. “It looks like Vietnam,” says Tracy, referring to the waterways in the ACE Basin where St. Jude Farms has permits for 750 oyster-growing cages and leases on 6,000 acres to actively farm oysters and clams, as well as Sweetgrass Mussels, which they’ve trademarked. “It’s the local ribbed mussel, which, if you pull the beard out, doesn’t have that bitterness,” she explains. “It’s good and salty, kind of a mussel-and-oyster mix.”

Additionally, St. Jude Farms sources responsibly caught fresh fish and shrimp from different boat captains and is the only local seafood purveyor to be certified by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. The company sold its first oyster three years ago, and today, 300 Charleston and Hilton Head restaurants and grocery stores are clients, with deliveries also going to Atlanta.

“I grew up on the docks—my father was president of the Clerks and Checkers Union for 25 years—so the waterfront has always been a big part of my life,” says Bob. While St. Jude Farms reflects the Doran family’s maritime heritage, it also furthers their commitment to stewardship and sustainability. Ultimately they hope St. Jude Farms will help create a more robust economy for Colleton County and the local maritime industry, while preserving the natural beauty of the ACE Basin. And the fact that the delivery truck occasionally has an extra bushel or two doesn’t hurt: “Our family can put down some oysters,” Tracy confesses.

Whether creating affordable housing or cultivating oysters, the values that drive the Dorans are basically the same. “We care about our employees, the environment, and people—and we hope this flows through everything we’re doing, whether it’s real estate or farming,” Bob says.

“I never imagined I’d be doing affordable housing, much less oyster farming—it’s all just evolved. One thing has led to another, and all we’ve done is respond to needs and opportunities as they arise,” adds Tracy, noting that her schooling didn’t exactly prepare her for either endeavor. Scratch that: “Hey, a nurse can do anything,” she laughs. And they’re off to whatever’s next.

Housing & Then Some
A roof over one’s head is only one aspect of curbing homelessness, Tracy and Bob Doran have found. They’ve expanded the Humanities Foundation outreach to provide a variety of resident services, helping vulnerable low-income residents become successful renters and remain in stable housing. One of the most recent Humanities Foundation developments, Ashleigh Place Seniors Apartments in Richmond Hill, Georgia*, offers its residents an array of amenities:

■ computer center
■ library
■ exercise room
■ arts-and-crafts room
■ community garden
■ a passenger bus to help residents get around
■ a food pantry van that delivers fresh, healthy fare on a regular basis

In addition, wellness screenings through a partnership with Armstrong State University (ASU) and MUSC bring ASU nursing students to Ashleigh Place at least once a week and use Bluetooth technology to measure residents’ weight, oxygen use, sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. This telemedicine technology enables Ashleigh Place residents to receive health screenings without leaving their neighborhood, while the results are sent electronically to their doctors.

Telemedicine is unique among senior-living communities and is being replicated in Charleston. “We know that health problems are the biggest barrier to older adults remaining in their homes,” says Tracy. “Our goal is to be proactive so our residents can live independently in their apartments as long as possible.”

*In recent years, due to South Carolina’s prioritizing of affordable housing in rural rather than urban areas, Humanities Foundation has expanded its developments outside the state, where funding is more available. The nonprofit is actively lobbying the state of South Carolina to redirect assets to urban areas where the need is high.