Lip service isn’t getting affordable housing built

Editors note:  Our local paper, The Daily Sun, regularly writes opinions on  local topics of interest. This past week, they twice addressed affordable housing.  Thanks for educating us all on this issue.  Please support our local newspaper by subscribing!

The Daily Sun, Editorial Board, October 9, 2021.

OUR POSITION: Housing continues to be a troubling aspect toward living in Southwest Florida. We can figure this out if we want.

To borrow a phrase from Charles Dudley Warner (no, not Mark Twain), “It is a matter about which a great deal is said, but very little done.”

Warner was referring to the weather. We’re talking about affordable housing.

Or, if you prefer, “attainable” housing, or “workforce” housing — terms sometimes considered preferable because they don’t conjure up images of decrepit public housing projects.

But it’s all affordable housing, Florida Housing Coalition President and CEO Jaime Ross said at a recent Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce program: decent housing that rents for no more than 30% of a household’s income.

For lower-income workers in Sarasota County, and the state in general, that’s only slightly more common than unicorn teeth.

Consider: Florida’s minimum wage just went up to $10 for most workers ($6.98 for tipped employees). Someone working 40 hours a week — which is not everyone — earns $400 a week, $1,600 a month. “Affordable” for that person would be an apartment renting for $480 a month.

The cheapest local unit on and this week was a one-bath efficiency at $1,050 a month. Of course, it wasn’t actually available.

Virtually nothing under $1,500 was. But if you could pay $2,000 or more a month, there was a selection.

And that’s just the base rent. Depending on the complex, you might also need to come up with the last month’s rent and a deposit.

Got a pet? That’s another deposit as well as higher rent.

Then there can be landlord’s insurance; pest control; “concierge” trash collection; a charge for in-unit washer and dryer; covered parking; extra storage; a monthly administrative fee.

Some costs are optional, others aren’t. Whatever your total is, the landlord will probably require monthly income of a minimum of 2.5 times that amount to consider an application.

In the case of that efficiency, it would be $2,625 to cover the base rent alone — about $16.40 an hour at a full-time job.

The state’s minimum wage doesn’t rise to $15 an hour until 2026.

High rents are the result of classic supply and demand economics — too many potential renters chasing too few units they can afford.

Desperate, they agree to rents they probably shouldn’t. That’s why nearly 1 million very-low income households in Florida spend more than 50% of their income on housing, Ross said.

It also contributes to the state’s homelessness crisis — the third-highest homeless population in the country, she said.

Money is at the root of the problem in several ways.

The Florida lifestyle — and lack of an income tax — attracts retirees. Developers make more money building high-end houses for them than apartment complexes.

The state has funds for affordable housing but the Legislature has made a habit of “sweeping” money out of them for other uses.

Local governments tend to say the affordable housing shortage is a state problem even though they have a statutory obligation to provide it.

They commission studies, adopt policies that rarely get enforced and the shortage grows.

There are things that can be done to address it, but the first step, Ross said, is adopting a mindset that affordable housing is infrastructure, as important as roads and parks.

Everything else depends on that. And that’s the easy part.

Editor’s note: On October 10th, The Daily Sun editorial board continued on this topic.  Although specifically addressing Sarasota County, the message  is also very applicable to our own Charlotte County 

OUR POSITION: As a former county planning commissioner and county commissioner, longtime real estate professional and native Sarasotan, Jon Thaxton knows as much about the state of housing in the county as anyone.

We should listen to him.

Now senior vice president for Community Investment at Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Thaxton was unsparing in his analysis of the state of affordable housing in a recent program put on by the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.

“If we are in our comfort zone in Sarasota County on the topic of affordable housing, then you’re not paying attention,” he said.

The county’s comprehensive plan says it must incentivize housing to meet the needs of all of its residents. In the case of lower-income earners, he said, that means housing the market won’t provide because developers can’t make a profit.

Land costs alone put the cost of housing at 200% of area median income even if the developer gets nothing, he said. “Affordable” housing is considered 80% of AMI or less.

“You have to be a martyr in Sarasota County to build a nonmarket rate house because you’re not going to make money,” Thaxton said. “The numbers don’t work, and they haven’t worked for a very, very long time.”

Some apartment complexes have been developed recently after a 25-year gap, he said, but rents are mostly out of reach of the average worker.

On top of that, he added, wages have been stagnant, leaving 70,000 county households “asset limited, income constrained but employed.” The status is referred to by the acronym “ALICE.”

“That means each month they have to make a decision what they’re not going to pay in order to sustain their family,” he said.

The mantra for increasing the housing inventory has been more density, more land and lower impact fees but none has produced affordable units, he said. They do have a role, though.

Density needs to be tied to an enforceable, long-term commitment to providing affordable units that gets a streamlined approval process.

Tiered impact fees would promote the development of a range of housing options, Thaxton said.

Rather than selling surplus government land, he said, the county should promote development on it, because selling a parcel with the intent to use the proceeds to buy other land means you’ll end up with less land.

Derelict shopping centers are another possible site for housing, Thaxton said. They should be readily convertible for multi-family development as long as they maintain the same footprint and don’t cause an increase in traffic.

The county also needs an affordable housing trust fund with a recurring revenue source, he said, and a housing czar.

The County Commission has taken a few steps in the right direction, he said, but the overall lack of results shows that affordable housing isn’t the priority it needs to be.

Every 20 houses built in the county create a need for at least one affordable unit, he said. And a lot of houses are being built. But when he did an analysis no affordable units had been added in the prior 15 years, he said.

The people who work here need to be able to afford to live here. If they can’t, soon no one will want to.